It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. It is important to recognise, as we all do, that the eyes of the world and the nation are upon us in this room, as we are the most important political event of the day. I am sure we will try to live up to that level of scrutiny.
As we are considering the entirety of clause 1, I will make a few preliminary comments. The clause deals with the foundations of the new approach to the online procedure. It provides that there are to be online procedure rules that require specified civil, family or tribunal proceedings, including proceedings in employment tribunals, and that the employment tribunal should be subject to the online procedure. It allows those kinds of proceedings to be initiated, managed and resolved by electronic means. Rules may provide for all or any part of the procedure for conducting proceedings online, including starting and defending proceedings or participating in hearings. Different rules may be made for different proceedings and for circumstances in which rules are not to apply or cease to apply. This allows flexibility and proportionality in giving effect to all procedure rules and ensuring that the right types of proceedings are supported by the right types of rules.
The clause also permits rules to provide for specified proceedings to be taken in a different court or tribunal from the one that would normally take them, and for central proceedings that would normally be heard in different courts or tribunals to be taken together. To ensure that the online procedures rule committee works for the benefit of all users, the power to make these rules is to be exercised in so far as it ensures that the procedure is accessible and fair, the rules are simple and simply expressed, disputes are resolved quickly and efficiently, and the rules support the use of innovative measures on resolving disputes.
The requirement for clear, accessible, simple and intelligible rules will make it easier for ordinary court users to navigate the system and access justice. Although the rules have been designed to be of particular benefit for ordinary court users, we expect them to be equally helpful for IT technicians and legal practitioners to make overall sense of the underlying framework of the IT and online service. It also strengthens the emphasis on innovative methods of dispute resolution, which might include online tools that support parties in resolving their issues without having to resort to a formal court hearing. The Government believe that these innovative methods are likely to widen access to justice further, to a wider cohort of users than now.
The clause also requires that when the committee make the rules, it must have regard for
“the needs of those who require support in order to initiate, conduct, progress or participate in proceedings by electronic means”,
to ensure that the committee is always aware of people who are digitally disadvantaged. Clause 1 specifies that if the online procedure rules require someone to participate in proceedings by electronic means, the rules must also provide for them to participate by non-electronic means. That was an amendment that the Government added in the House of Lords, and it demonstrates our commitment to paper proceedings.
Clause 1 gives effect the schedule 1, which deals with practice directions. These powers are similar to those that are currently provided in the Civil Procedure Act 1997, the Courts Act 2003, the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 and the Employment Appeal Tribunal (Amendment) Rules 1996. The powers will enable the Lord Chief Justice or his nominee, with the approval of the Lord Chancellor, to issue practice directions in civil and family proceedings to which online procedures apply.
Amendment 1, which stands in the name of the hon. Member for Bolton South East, is designed to to give users the ability to opt out of using online services at any time, and switch instead to a paper route. Our ambition is to develop online services that are so easy to navigate that, over time, digital channels will become the default choice for the majority of our users. Nevertheless, I absolutely agree that it is right to ensure that people can choose a paper option at different stages throughout proceedings, and vary that choice at different points where that is their preference. I must clarify that the Bill already provides for this—indeed, we amended the Bill in the other place to ensure that this is absolutely clear.
Subsection (6), inserted by the Government amendment in the other place, provides that
“Where Online Procedure Rules require a person to initiate, conduct, progress or participate in proceedings by electronic means”,
“must also provide that a person may instead choose to do so by non-electronic means.”
Litigants will not be tied to a particular channel. There is nothing in the Bill that requires a litigant who begins proceedings online to continue to do so throughout the entirety of their case. The Government are aware that some litigants might be less able or confident in using some parts of our digital services, so we will allow them to transact with us easily via a mix of paper and digital channels. To be clear, litigants will be able to choose to use paper or online options at different points during the same proceedings if they wish to do so, and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service’s approach is built around providing and supporting that choice. The amendment is therefore unnecessary. It does not add anything to the Bill, so I urge her to withdraw it.