The Lord Chancellor promised ‘a new era for our courts’ as she introduced the second reading of the Prisons and Courts Bill in the House of Commons earlier in the week. Liz Truss told MPs that that the legislation would modernise ‘a process that remains fundamentally unchanged from the Victoria era’.
Labour broadly supported the proposals subject to seeking amendments to secure access to justice however its MPs accused the government of ‘ideological vandalism’ over the introduction of employment tribunal fees.
You can read a House of Commons’ library briefing here. Most of the debate focussed on the plans for prison reform (part 1); the Bill also proposes court reforms ‘designed to integrate technology and enhance efficiency’ (parts 2 and 3), new judicial terms and conditions (part 4), and reforms to compensation for whiplash injuries (part 5).
Liz Truss also promised further legislation noting that the reforms ‘should be reflected in better legal support’. ‘That is why we are bringing forward a legal support Green Paper in early 2018, setting out proposals to update the system of legal support in a modern court system. Put simply, what we want is less time spent navigating the system and more legal time spent on giving people legal advice and legal representation,’ she said.
The shadow justice minister Richard Burgon warned that innovation should ‘not come at the expense of access to justice’. ‘Because in recent years, when the Conservatives have released documents with the word “transforming” in the title, that has usually been shorthand for cutting, diminishing and failing – think of “Transforming Legal Aid” and “Transforming Rehabilitation.” “Transforming our Justice System,” which is one of the papers that has influenced this Bill, must not result in the same,’ he said.
‘The Bill must provide answers to such problems,’ he said. ‘Technology alone is not a panacea, nor must it be utilised to mask further cuts to public funding.’
‘Since 2010 Government legal aid cuts have robbed thousands of the legal representation that should be their right. Many of them are those who are most in need of legal representation – for example, people who are in debt, claiming welfare benefits, facing marital breakdown or experiencing housing problems. In 2012-13, 724,243 civil law cases were funded by legal aid; after the provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 were introduced, that figure plummeted to 258,460. I realise that some Government Members will toast those figures as evidence of a job well done, but in reality what are they but proof of access to justice denied?’
‘How on earth will people be able to gain access to justice when they cannot possibly do anything online because of appalling broadband?’ asked the Labour for Bridgend Madeleine Moon.
The Lord Chancellor pointed out the online system would not be mandatory. ‘I have been looking recently at virtual hearings that are taking place across the country,’ she said. ‘In some areas, such as the south-west of England, there is very high take-up of these hearings, because being able to use broadband helps people in rural areas, who have long distances to travel to get to court.’
Burgon flagged up the 70% reduction in employment tribunal cases following the coalition Government’s introduction of fees. The MP insisted his party would abolish employment tribunal fees ‘because Labour believes in access to justice’. The former justice minister and Tory MP Jonathan Djanogly argued that such a policy would ‘giving something for nothing’ which Burgon called ‘a disgraceful comment’.
Labour’s Nick Thomas-Symonds said that whilst his party would support the bill it would seek amendments ‘to embed the principles of justice and fairness and to ensure that innovations come with safeguards and appropriate statutory reviews’. ‘We are in favour of modernisation of our courts system, but the cuts to legal aid have meant that there are far more litigants in person within our courts system,’ he said. ‘Similarly, there are measures on employment tribunals in this Bill, but they do nothing to take away the ideological vandalism of the employment tribunal fees that were introduced in 2013.’
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