The Lord Chief Justice yesterday rejected the rational behind the government policy of fees ‘cross subsidising’ the courts, in an appearance before the House of Commons justice committee. Lord Thomas of Cymgiedd was answering questions from MPs about his recent annual reported – as reported on LegalVoice here. In his report, the head of judiciary called for ‘a proper balance’ to be struck between court fees and the state funding of the justice system.
‘The criminal justice system is an integral part of society and it cannot be funded by other litigants,’ Lord Thomas told the committee. ‘The cross subsidy argument to my mind cannot be right. The state has an enormous interest in the development of the law.’ All governments have always ‘had as their end making the litigants pay more’, he said. ‘We must not make fees a barrier to access to justice.’ Committee chair and Conservative barrister Bob Neill asked if there was ‘a risk that we push to far’ and whether ‘we were close’ to that point. Lord Thomas replied ‘Yes’.
The LCJ flagged up the ‘steady rise’ of private law family cases as ‘probably the most important’ area of concern following the LASPO cuts. According to Lord Thomas, immediately after April 2013 there was ‘a huge fall’ in the number of such cases ‘partly because, without the help of lawyers, mediation does not seem to be particularly effective answer’. ‘Parties have tried to resolve the issue themselves and in the process of trying to resolve it over the last two to three years the dispute has become more bitter and more intractable,’ he said.
The Lord Chief Justice made the case for judges to be represented on the boards of the three main regulatory bodies: the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Bar Standards Board to prevent the ‘undermining’ of legal standards. ‘It’s absolutely essential that if any changes are made to the current framework that professional standards and the overriding duty to the court is preserved,’ he said. ‘It has always seemed to us that, of all the interests represented, very odd that the judiciary is not represented.’
Lord Thomas flagged up the judiciary’s concern over poor quality representation offered by lawyers representing people attempting to challenge by judicial decisions to deport. ‘It was terrible for the court but even worse for litigants who would go to a highly reputable person who would say that there is nothing more that can be done and then go to somebody else who would take their money and make a completely helpless application to no benefit.’ He added that many such cases were handled by trainee lawyers paid ‘very little’ by their firms.
MPs also asked how the proposals for online courts would cater for the ‘digitally excluded’ – see here. ‘People who do not use IT are not “a problem”. They are a fact of life,’ he said. ‘There has to be help or a phone line. We absolutely have to provide that. It is a people’s right.’
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