Baroness Chakrabarti contributions to the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Act 2018


Tue 13th November 2018 Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [HL] (Lords Chamber)
3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
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Tue 16th October 2018 Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [HL] (Lords Chamber)
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Tue 10th July 2018 Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [HL] (Lords Chamber)
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Wed 20th June 2018 Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [HL] (Lords Chamber)
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
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Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [HL]

(3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
Baroness Chakrabarti Excerpts
Tuesday 13th November 2018

(1 year, 10 months ago)

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Ministry of Justice
Lord Keen of Elie - Hansard

That the Bill do now pass.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab) - Hansard

My Lords, I shall not trouble the House for long. Notwithstanding some differences of principle between us, I am very grateful to the Minister and his Bill team for the limited movement towards safeguards in the Bill, but it is a shame that the Bill was not a possible vehicle for the prohibition of cross-examination of domestic violence victims in the family courts. It is government policy and it would surely command cross-party and non-party support, so I hope the Minister will talk to his colleagues in government and make time for this discrete but vital measure before too long.

The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Keen of Elie) (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, we are conscious of the need to address this measure and have of course addressed it in the past. I note what the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, has said on that topic but, nevertheless, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [HL]

(Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords)
Baroness Chakrabarti Excerpts
Tuesday 16th October 2018

(1 year, 11 months ago)

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Ministry of Justice

1: Clause 3, page 3, line 24, leave out subsection (3) and insert—

“( ) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab) - Hansard

My Lords, I believe we have some settled agreement in your Lordships’ House on the constitutional system we serve, which is still much admired around the world. In that system, notwithstanding the peculiarities of your Lordships’ revising House, accountable primary legislators make our laws and independent judges apply them.

I fear that we have been lulled into a false sense of security on this so-called mouse of a Bill. We have been encouraged to wave it through your Lordships’ House without much of a squeak, but I fear none the less that it breaches the crucial distinction I just attempted to set out. It attempts to sneak through principal changes that, in my view, constitute a double delegation of legislative powers to unaccountable judges by way of the procedure rule committee—and ultimately not even to judges because in my experience, government lawyers will draft those rules, which will pass on the rule committee without much by way of amendment.

Secondly, judicial powers are to be delegated to non-independent courts and tribunal staff. The procedure rule committee is primarily made up of senior judges. That would ensure relatively little external public scrutiny of this delegation of judicial functions to non-judicial staff, to employees of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. It is vital that Clause 3, which delegates judicial functions to authorised staff, is understood in the context of a much wider court reform agenda, and the significant austerity measures—because austerity is not quite over yet—that sit behind this.

Efficiencies generated by the proposed reforms will arise not only through the reduction of the court estate but through savings on judicial salaries. The Government’s Queen’s Speech promised a programme of reforms that would transform the way the United Kingdom justice system operates. Unlike last year’s Prisons and Courts Bill, which dealt with these proposed reforms head on, the courts and tribunals Bill is the beginning of a slower legislative drip-feed process. There has been no adequate parliamentary scrutiny of this broad programme of expensive modernising measures—even by the Justice Committee—nor indeed of the associated court closures and staff cuts.

The Bill currently provides that regulations under Clause 3 shall be made under a negative resolution procedure. This would allow for new rules of court stipulating which judicial functions may be delegated and to whom, and an authorised person’s requisite qualifications or experience to take on those judicial functions. As the Bill stands, this delegation will come into force without any real parliamentary scrutiny. By providing that the regulations in the Bill be made under the negative resolution procedure, the Government are once again seeking to avoid proper scrutiny by democratically mandated legislatures, principally the other place. This amendment, supported by the Bar Council, attempts to ensure more constitutionally appropriate accountability and scrutiny, through at least the affirmative resolution procedure, of the potentially sweeping regulations to be made under Clause 3. Those regulations concern powers to make rules stipulating which judicial functions may be delegated and to whom, alongside appropriate stipulations regarding the qualifications or experience required before this member of the administration—potentially quite a junior member of Whitehall staff—be given these judicial functions.

As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who I see in his place, pointed out in Committee:

“The power which the Secretary of State or Lord Chancellor is being given”,

under the clause,

“includes a power to make ‘consequential provision’”.—[Official Report, 10/7/18; col. 878.]

Despite the Government’s promise to give further consideration to the issue during the previous debate, they seem to have offered only the assurance that the power will be limited to changes to statutory instruments. If that is the assurance, why should it not appear in the primary legislation? As a legislator, that seems an assurance worth having.

At Second Reading, the Minister said in response to concerns expressed about the lack of consultation and scrutiny of this ambitious reform programme that,

“the purpose of primary legislation is to implement law, not to review that which we can already do”.—[Official Report, 20/6/18; col. 2053.]

I once more respectfully disagree with that constitutional analysis, for to my mind the role of the legislative process is most certainly in part to review government policy and to restrain executive action, particularly when that policy has the potential—just the potential—profoundly to impact on our justice system. Without careful scrutiny and additional safeguards, the Government’s drip-feed might erode some of our most fundamental institutions and our understanding of the rule of law. The safeguards that we are calling for on the powers created by this Bill are not unreasonable, or seeking to wreck the fundamental notion of reasonable delegation of non-contentious administrative functions. They are minimal if we consider that provisions in this so-called uncontroversial Bill have the potential profoundly to impact on our justice system. The relatively unrestrained double delegation of legislative and judicial powers that the Bill encourages is a slippery constitutional slope that we can, and ought to, resist.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD) - Hansard

My Lords, since Committee on 10 July there have been meetings and extensive correspondence with the noble and learned Lord’s department. The question arises on this amendment as to what is the ambit of the power. If it were as described by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, one would have considerable sympathy with the amendment—indeed, I do have sympathy with it, but it needs a little more analysis.

When serving on the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, as I did for some years, we were astute always in not ruling out a negative resolution procedure in cases where the power was strictly limited, but insisting on an affirmative resolution where it was not. In the analysis that we have conducted I have been very grateful to the Bill team, and in particular to the Bill manager, Dominic Smales, for the careful and thorough way in which he in particular responded to my persistent and probably rather troubling questioning. What has concerned me is Clause 3(1), to which the noble Baroness referred, which states:

“The Schedule provides for authorised court and tribunal staff”—

it is subsection (b) that worries me—

“to exercise judicial functions where procedure rules so provide”.

The phrase,

“where procedure rules so provide”,

is important.

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Lord Keen of Elie - Hansard

I endeavoured to set that point out in my previous observations, but I am happy to repeat them. If the Government’s intention had been to seek the power to amend primary legislation then, in accordance with precedent and court decisions on interpretation, they would have included the express power to do so in Clause 3, as they did in the Prisons and Courts Bill. There is no intention of doing that and they have not included that power. I do not consider that such a power is available to the Government, in light of the way in which Clause 3 is carefully framed, so I have no difficulty with that.

The provisions that we have now made within the Bill for dealing with this by way of the negative procedure found approval with the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which is of course charged with reporting on such provisions. It noted in its 29th report that there was nothing in the Bill to which it wished to draw the attention of the House. I am aware that in the past the Magistrates’ Association raised a point similar to that raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, but I understand that once we—by which I mean the Bill managers—had explained the position, as they did to the noble Lord, Lord Marks, it withdrew its concerns because it appreciated the narrow scope of this provision. With that explanation, I hope that the noble Baroness will see fit to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer and to other noble Lords for their interventions, particularly the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. I set out my broad concerns about the Bill, but I want to be distinct about this amendment in particular. I think that it was worth asking the Minister to set out in some detail not only the Government’s intentions in relation to this power but their view of the power, what they are able and not able to do and the fact that they are not able under this power to amend primary legislation. With that firm statement of belief in the law around this power and the intention, I am grateful to the Minister and happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

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2: After Clause 3, insert the following new Clause—

“Review of the delegation of legal advice and judicial functions to authorised staff

(1) Within the period of three years from the coming into force of this Act, the Lord Chancellor must arrange for a review to be undertaken on the impact of the implementation of the provisions contained within section 3 and the Schedule to this Act.(2) A report setting out the findings of the review must be laid before both Houses of Parliament.”

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

My Lords, this amendment would ensure that within three years of the coming into force of the Act the Lord Chancellor must arrange for a review of the impact of the implementation of its provisions, including provisions within what would by then be Section 3 and the Schedule. The report would have to be laid before both Houses of Parliament. We should bear in mind the potential perils of justice reforms without sufficient research, consultation and subsequent evaluation.

I hope noble Lords will forgive me reminding your Lordships’ House of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. The Public Accounts Committee made clear that, in bringing forward that legislation, the Ministry of Justice had not properly assessed the full impact of those reforms. That impact has proved devasting for some of the most vulnerable in our society who, as a result of that reform and those cuts, have almost been shut out altogether from the legal aid system of which we were once so very proud.

We are still awaiting the much-anticipated review of the operation of LASPO required after three to five years of implementation in 2013. The hope for the many thousands of people who have been locked out of our justice system due to the withdrawal of legal aid is that a sober assessment of LASPO might precipitate reform and recognition of the need to reverse some of the more destructive elements of that legislation. The Bach commission report—conducted by my noble friend Lord Bach—made many recommendations for reform, but we continue to wait for the Government to deliver on that statutory obligation to review and report.

The fact that the LASPO review has been delayed makes such mechanisms no less vital. For the same reasons of accountability and adequate evaluation of reform we are seeking to ensure that this Government are obliged to assess and report on the impact of the reforms to our court system proposed by the Bill. The Bar Council has also expressed support for this amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, this amendment would require the Lord Chancellor to arrange a review of the impact of the authorised staff provisions within a period of three years of the Act coming into force. As the impact assessment for these measures states, we will work closely with the rule committees and the senior judiciary to monitor the impact of any future assignment of functions and responsibilities to authorised staff. HM Courts & Tribunals Service is also committed to evaluating and testing the impacts of the reforms to courts and tribunals.

As noble Lords will be aware, the majority of the authorised staff provisions in the Bill are not new. Within the civil and tribunals jurisdictions, and in the magistrates’ courts and family court, staff can already be authorised to undertake a variety of judicial case management responsibilities. The exercise of judicial functions by staff is already kept under review. For example, earlier this year the HMCTS conducted a review of the work of tribunal caseworkers two years after the role was created. We would expect the rule committees and the senior judiciary to continue to keep these provisions under review across the jurisdictions as they feel necessary, drawing on their relevant expertise to do so. We would expect the rule committee meeting minutes where authorised staff are discussed to be published where it is in the public interest to do so.

Where we are extending these provisions to a new jurisdiction—namely, the Crown Court—we expect the Criminal Procedure Rules Committee to conduct a review along the lines of those undertaken in other jurisdictions. It is right that the committee conducts the review; it is independent of government and its membership includes judges, lawyers who practise regularly in criminal courts and representatives of voluntary organisations with a direct interest in the work of the criminal courts. It is therefore very well placed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, asked for more information about recent reforms. We are already committed to evaluating and testing the impact of our wider package of reforms to the courts and tribunals system. That evaluation will be published in due course.

The amendment is at best an unnecessary duplication of effort and resources. I hope I have been able to provide the noble Baroness with the appropriate assurance that the authorised staff provisions will continue to be kept under review in all jurisdictions. I trust that she will now feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

I am grateful to the Minister for that. I am grateful that there is a continuing commitment to evaluate such reforms in future, notwithstanding the lack of evaluation of LASPO to date. Once more I feel that the fact that she has made that commitment in your Lordships’ House should give me and others some assurance, and we must make sure that we follow up on that assurance in due course. With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 2 withdrawn.

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3: The Schedule, page 6, line 36, at end insert—

“( ) is a qualified solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive with more than three years’ experience post-qualification, and”

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendments 4 and 6, which are consequential. These amendments in aggregate stipulate that authorised persons must have the following bare minimum legal qualifications: that they be a qualified solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive with more than three years’ experience post-qualification, as recommended and drafted by the Law Society and supported by the Bar Council. This is a very minimal ask of the Government in the circumstances. It is a lower qualification threshold than is currently required for pupil supervisors or for solicitors to supervise an office.

Authorised staff who are not subject to the training, experience, ethos and oaths of professional judges could be performing judicial functions and employed directly by HMCTS. Even the concept of such delegation, as I said earlier, raises questions of independence. There is legitimate concern that they would inevitably be subject to administrative pressures—for example, meeting targets in a very difficult fiscal climate—and potentially subject to political pressures as well. Without some reasonable limit on who can be authorised, this delegation has, as I said, the potential—perhaps just the potential, but the potential none the less—to change an essential aspect of our judicial system.

I acknowledge that the relevant procedure rules committee will set out procedural requirements about who is empowered to carry out those procedures, but, as we have heard, the committees are made up predominantly of senior judges. This marks a growing trend towards forcing a judiciary that is already bearing the brunt of cuts to the MoJ’s budget also to have to mark its own homework. This has implications for the rule of law and for the independence of judicial decision-making. We also argue that such a shift may well fall short of reasonable expectations held by members of the public about the level of experience and independence of those charged with making judicial decisions—not least about their fundamental rights.

The draft Authorised Court Staff Qualifications Regulations which have been offered in response to those concerns offer only that authorised persons are legally qualified solicitors or barristers. The Bill policy statement provided by the MoJ states:

“We do not expect legal qualifications to necessarily be required for all the different types of judicial functions that authorised staff will carry out”,

so that assurance does not go very far. The Opposition, along with key stakeholders—in this case, the Law Society and the Bar Council—are clear that further qualification is necessary for authorised persons adequately to take on judicial functions of whatever magnitude and that minimum requirements ought to be included in the Bill.

I note that the Minister previously pointed out that three years’ post-qualification experience sets the bar higher than that currently required of assistant justices’ clerks, who currently tend to legal advice within magistrates’ and family courts. However, assistant justices’ clerks are not currently performing judicial functions. If the object here is to provide uniformity to the practice of delegation across all courts and tribunals, surely we should set the bar at least three years PQE.

One has to ask whether the reluctance on the Government’s part to set minimum qualifications just a little higher than nowhere is not due to fiscal concerns about HMCTS staff salaries. Once again, the Government are asking the public—on this occasion, users of our courts and justice system—to bear the burden of austerity, which we have only just been told is over. I beg to move.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames - Hansard

My Lords, the noble Baroness has opened our debate on the amendment with considerable eloquence and a beguiling argument. We have approached the question of whether an authorised member of staff needs to be a qualified lawyer of stipulated experience with an eye on what the extent of the delegated powers of authorised persons would be. In particular, the concern that I expressed in Committee was that the delegated powers should not extend to taking away a person’s liberty, or to ejecting a person from his or her family home, or the family from that home, or to granting an injunction or an order for preserving evidence, which can have far-reaching consequences, or authorise searches of private premises.

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Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait Baroness Vere of Norbiton - Hansard

My Lords, these amendments relate to two elements of the Bill. Amendments 3 and 4 require that any authorised person who gives legal advice to lay judges or judges of the family court must be legally qualified and have more than three years’ experience post-qualification. Amendment 6 makes the same requirement of staff carrying out judicial functions.

The qualifications for staff giving legal advice have been set out in regulations since 1979. They remain substantively the same today: broadly, one must be a barrister or solicitor or have passed the necessary exams to become one. The qualifications will continue to be set out in regulations and subject to parliamentary scrutiny. We are not proposing any changes to that process. Allowing qualifications to be set out in regulations has not resulted in a lowering or lessening of this bar. Amendments 3 and 4 would, however, raise it to a height that is unnecessary and could adversely impact on the diversity of legal experience in our courts.

In our draft regulations, which we published ahead of Committee stage, we are proposing to take the opportunity to modernise the qualifications required for legal advisers by adding to those eligible to give legal advice fellows of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives—CILEx—and those who have passed the necessary exams to be fellows. The addition of CILEx fellows highlights the danger of all three of these amendments. Prescribing qualifications on the face of the Bill means that, should an alternative route to legal qualification emerge, adding this qualification to these provisions could only be achieved through primary legislation.

I turn to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, about Amendment 3. One might be in a circumstance where a judge would need advice from somebody with less than three years’ qualification. It may be exceptional—for example, a judge might reasonably ask for advice on procedure. Legal advisers must know, understand and apply the law, and advise judges and magistrates accordingly. The bar we have had in place for almost 40 years has worked perfectly well, and our current legal advisers are providing an excellent service.

Requiring three years’ post-qualification experience would restrict the avenues through which people can qualify as lawyers and would also exclude experienced legal advisers. Amendment 6 takes a similarly one-size-fits-all approach, but for the qualifications needed for staff to exercise judicial functions. The difficulty with this is that it does not allow for a variety of qualifications to mirror the variety of tasks that staff may carry out. I stress that the exercise of judicial functions by authorised staff is not new anywhere but in the Crown Court. Courts and tribunals staff already carry out judicial functions in the Court of Appeal, magistrates’ courts and family courts, as do registrars and caseworkers in the tribunals. Some of these staff are legally qualified; others are not. For example, there are specialist registrars in some of the tribunals, such as the tax tribunal, where tax specialists are not legally qualified. Their qualifications depend on the work they are carrying out—as in any job—and many of them already exercise the jurisdiction of our courts on a daily basis.

As my noble and learned friend Lord Keen said in Committee, the kinds of tasks authorised staff already carry out—and could undertake more of in future—are largely preparatory or interlocutory. These staff support the progression of cases: getting things ready for court and working out what the court should do. Their work will ensure that hearings and trials are as effective as they can be and that our courts, tribunals and resources are put to best use.

Perhaps that goes some way to answering the question from my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier about the sorts of roles these authorised members of staff will undertake. It is right that we have sought to carve out those roles that we feel they should not undertake. However, the number of roles they could undertake is extremely broad. The level of qualification that staff need should vary according to the work they do. The Bill allows the procedure rule committees to set the requirements as to the qualifications or experience of authorised staff exercising judicial functions. This is the right approach. The committees are best placed to assess the requirements for their jurisdictions in light of the functions that they permit authorised staff to carry out.

Amendment 6 would require that someone carrying out the simplest of tasks, such as changing the start time of a hearing, must be a qualified and experienced lawyer. This is plainly unnecessary. The judiciary is ultimately responsible for authorising court and tribunal staff to exercise judicial functions, and will do so only if satisfied of their competence. An applicant’s formal qualifications will be checked before appointment, and their judgment, skills and knowledge assessed by a supervising judge or senior lawyer before any authorisation can take place.

For the reasons that I have set out, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

Once again, I am grateful to the Minister and other noble Lords for that interesting and illuminating discussion. I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier. He is a first-rate lawyer, judge and parliamentarian, and I have no doubt that he will make many important contributions in your Lordships’ House.

The noble Lord, Lord Marks, nailed the basic thrust of the objections to this group of amendments: they fly in the face of efficiency and cost savings. Less was offered, I am afraid, by way of reassurance as to the quality of justice that the public may look forward to as a result of this Bill.

As always, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for pointing out the slight anomaly that legal advisers to the judiciary need not be qualified lawyers. That is perhaps a little strange, and points to the underlying motive behind this draft legislation.

Anyone who has spent any time in a magistrates’ court will realise that very serious decisions about people’s lives are made in that jurisdiction, under a great deal of pressure. Therefore, I do not share the relaxed approach to the training and qualifications required to be a legal adviser to lay magistrates or justices of the peace. None the less, I do not want to trouble your Lordships’ House with a Division that is doomed due to lack of support from the noble Lord, Lord Marks. So, with a somewhat heavy heart, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 3 withdrawn.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames - Hansard

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has indicated that we support these amendments, and indeed they respond to concerns that I raised. I indicated in Committee, and in discussion and correspondence with the department since, that I did not see the need to restrict the ambit of delegated functions in a way that could prevent authorised officers extending time for the service of documents, or making consent orders of a procedural nature in substantial civil claims.

However, I was extremely concerned that an authorised officer should not have the power to: make orders taking away the liberty of the subject; make a possession order that would have the effect of depriving someone, or their family, of their home; take the serious steps and risk the far-reaching consequences of granting injunctions; or make orders to preserve evidence—which, as I said earlier, could involve searches of private premises.

I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, and to the Bill team, for their consideration and acceptance of the principles I have made. Amendments 5 and 12 respond fully to our concerns and we support them.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

My Lords, as far as I am concerned, this is the good news in this afternoon’s proceedings. I am very grateful to the Government, assisted by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, for responding to some of the gravest concerns about the gravest decisions that ought not to be delegated to non-judicial persons. I have been trying to suggest that there is an ocean of difference between purely procedural decisions and those that could have, for example, the effect of depriving an individual of their freedom. Without limits on who can be authorised, and what powers can be delegated, measures such as those that we have been discussing could have a very profound effect on the nature of our judicial system. Such a profound change really requires proper scrutiny by parliamentarians.

The stated intention of the policy is to improve the efficiency of the Courts Service by diverting judges’ time from routine tasks, to allow them to focus their time and expertise on more complex matters. Matters of personal liberty and of people’s homes should surely be considered in that higher order of decision-making. That is why I am particularly grateful for having been heard by both the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and by the Government, in relation to concerns raised at earlier stages and in discussion.

While it is almost impossible to create a definitive or exhaustive list of appropriate judicial functions for delegation, covering each tribunal and eventuality—particularly as these roles cover a broad range from the administrative to the determinative, depending on the jurisdiction—we can surely all agree that functions that might deprive a person of their home or their liberty are never appropriate for this kind of delegation. These particular limitations really are the bare minimum. It is worth noting that, in his civil courts structure review, Lord Justice Briggs drew the line at caseworkers making any dispositive decisions, which he saw as being a purely judicial role.

All delegated functions in the civil jurisdiction are routine case-management functions, and are often confined only to cases where all parties consent. Legal advisers do not currently make decisions that represent a final determination, and a party may request a reconsideration of any decision of a legal adviser within 14 days of being served a notice of that decision. Are these not reasonable restrictions to have been placed on delegated functions in criminal proceedings? The MoJ’s own factsheet on delegation to staff says that delegated decisions are unlikely to involve contested matters. In addition to concerns around transparency, there is a danger that efficiencies gained by delegating case management decisions will be lost if the court has to reconsider these decisions at a later stage in the process.

I give the Government due credit for having gone some way towards addressing real concerns raised at the Lords Committee stage with an amendment that prohibits the delegation of decisions affecting people’s homes and personal liberty. We wholeheartedly support these government amendments, which are very welcome; none the less, they highlight the potential hidden dangers in an apparently benign Bill.

Amendment 5 agreed.

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Lord Keen of Elie - Hansard

One obvious example is the issuing of a summons. Such persons issue about 2.5 million summonses at the instigation of public authorities each year. If every one of those applications for a summons was the subject of judicial reconsideration, with the kind of time limits alluded to in Amendments 8 and 11, the delays involved would be enormous. There are other means by which, in due course, a party may seek to challenge the issuance of such a summons. I take that as one clear example of where it would not be appropriate for there to be judicial reconsideration.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 8 and to Amendment 11, which is consequential, both of which were drafted by the Bar Council.

Clause 3 and the Schedule to the Bill provide for judicial functions to be delegated to authorised staff across the criminal, civil and family courts and tribunals. This would allow decisions that are currently made by independent judges to now be made by employees of Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service. The Bill provides that authorised staff will be independent of the Lord Chancellor when carrying out these delegated judicial functions, but they will remain court staff and will not take the judicial oath of independence.

Amendments 8 and 11 would ensure that a party to any decision made by an authorised person in the execution of relevant judicial functions or of a tribunal—by virtue of Section 67B(1) or paragraph 3 of Schedule 5 respectively—may apply in writing within 14 days of the service of the order to have the decision reconsidered by a judge of the relevant court within 14 days from the date of application.

A statutory right of reconsideration allowing any party to a decision by an authorised person to have that decision reconsidered by a judge was recommended by Lord Justice Briggs in his 2016 report Civil Courts Structure Review: Final Report. That right is currently already provided for, for example, in the tribunal procedure rules. Lord Justice Briggs said:

“The creation of an extensive right to have the decisions of Case Officers considered by a judge has from the outset been regarded as the natural safety valve for concerns about what was … described as the delegation of judicial functions to persons who are not judges”.

As a minimum safeguard, the right of consideration has the benefit of freeing an authorised person from the obligation to produce detailed reasons for every decision, as would be the case if the right of appeal were, for example, created. It is important to point out that this consideration on the papers by a judge is not the same as a full right of appeal. It has the additional benefit of going further than a right of review, guaranteeing judicial oversight of a decision which a right of review would not ensure.

Crucially, this statutory right would also ensure compliance with Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights—the right to a fair trial—surrounding decisions affecting people’s rights by an independent and impartial person, which is not a member of court staff. It is a proportionate safeguard relevant to the new powers created by the Bill. Your Lordships are aware that Article 6 provides that the determination of a person’s civil rights and obligations or any criminal charge against them must be undertaken by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.

The requirements of independence apply not only to the tribunal but also to any judge or other officer authorised by law to exercise judicial power. As the Ministry of Justice acknowledges in its memorandum on the Bill,

“In considering independence, … guarantees against outside pressures are relevant – as is the question whether the body presents an appearance of independence”.

In that human rights memorandum, the MoJ suggests that it is intended that,

“case management decisions which it is proposed these authorised members of staff will be able to take will be uncontentious and not of sufficient importance to engage Article 6”.

However, case management decisions can have a significant impact on shaping the issues, progress and ultimate outcome of the case. For example, a decision on the appropriate timescales within which a party should take a step in proceedings may be significant, as failures to comply with that timescale can subsequently lead to some or all of the party’s case being struck out.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Justice’s fact sheet on the delegation of functions to non-judicial staff states:

“In future, we expect that authorised staff will be able to carry out a range of functions and responsibilities, including case management powers and some mediation roles”.

This suggests that it is envisaged that such staff will have a role beyond merely making non-contentious decisions on purely procedural matters in future.

The Government’s welcome amendment excludes some functions from delegation, but there are still others that may be significant to the progress and outcome of an important case. Such functions—for example, the issuing of an arrest warrant to secure a person’s attendance in court—can still be delegated to non-judicial staff.

In Committee, the Minister argued that a blanket right to reconsideration across all jurisdictions will not work in practice, as it will add significant cost and delay to the process on the basis that a dissatisfied party will inevitably apply for reconsideration by a judge, thereby negating the benefits of delegating decisions to staff. However, this objection was dealt with by Lord Briggs in his Civil Courts Structure Review: Final Report. He accepted that,

“an unfettered right of reconsideration will be a necessary long-stop”.

He also cited evidence from real-life precedents, suggesting that where such a right exists elsewhere, the number of reconsideration applications is low. Surely that should continue to be the case, particularly if, as the Ministry of Justice suggests, the decisions being made by authorised staff are properly non-contentious.

The Government’s concession, placing an obligation on the relevant rule committee to consider a right to judicial reconsideration for delegated functions, does much less to satisfy our concerns than their concession on delegated functions themselves, such as the safeguard in relation to a person’s liberty in their home. In fact, the Government’s concession here replicates the fundamental problem with the effect of the Bill. Placing the obligation on the rules committee, which ultimately does not have the budget to fund the Courts Service, delegates a legislative duty to an unaccountable body.

We on this side of your Lordships’ House strongly believe that Parliament has a legitimate role in ensuring that the new system of delegation proposed in the Bill includes a backstop protection for the right to a fair trial. Consequently, I urge noble Lords to support our amendments, which have already been endorsed by the Law Society, the Bar Council and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. They propose a statutory right to judicial reconsideration for any party to a judicial decision made by an authorised person, or non-judge. This would afford stronger protection for the right to a fair trial and guarantee the independent and impartial determination required by Article 6.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames - Hansard

My Lords, in Committee I spoke in favour of a blanket right to judicial reconsideration of all delegated decisions of authorised persons, much along the lines suggested just now by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. During the debate, and after I had spoken, I was gently chided—if I may put it that way—by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury. He said that he sympathised with my view, stating that,

“the idea of a decision being made by a non-judicial person and not being referable to a judicial figure is inconsistent with justice”.

However, he went on:

“Whether it is right to provide in such clear terms, and such uncompromising general terms, for the circumstances and requirements for such an appeal seems to me, again, to be questionable. While I absolutely see the requirement for a right of appeal, I would have thought that, again, it would be better to leave it to the rule committee”.—[Official Report, 10/7/18; col. 890.]

I stress, as has been stressed before, that rules made by the rule committee have to be laid before Parliament, and are subject to annulment if Parliament so decides. The question is, then: how far do the amendments tabled by the Government in this group ensure that a right of judicial reconsideration will apply, when such a right ought to apply?

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, suggested meeting the need to provide for judicial reconsideration by introducing requirements for the rule-making bodies to consider and work on the judicial reconsideration specific for each type of function. Amendments 7 and 13 reflect the Government’s thinking on that. The rule-making body will first have to consider and decide whether rules delegating functions should, in respect of each delegated function—that is important, because they are function-specific—include a right to judicial reconsideration. Secondly, if the rule-making body considers that the rules should include such a right, that body will be compelled to include it, so the right will stand. Thirdly, if the rule-making body considers that the rules should not include such a right, the body should be compelled to inform the Lord Chancellor of its decision and reasoning. Not only are these function-specific arrangements, but they meet the point that there would be no judicial reconsideration.

I was initially concerned when I saw these amendments that they would stop there, without providing for what the Lord Chancellor should do when informed of a decision by a rule-making body not to include a right to judicial reconsideration. But the Lord Chancellor has the power to require rules to be made. It seems to me that if the Lord Chancellor is of the view—being answerable to Parliament and having to lay rules before it—that a rule-making body is wrong in failing to provide for judicial reconsideration, he may be expected to require appropriate rules to be made. That is enhanced by the fact that, if he decides that they are right, he will have to come back to Parliament and say so. In my view, that meets the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, while providing for the introduction of rights to judicial reconsideration and delegated decisions where appropriate.

I do not see that there is a contravention of Article 6 simply because a judicial decision is delegated to an authorised officer. That would be a matter of consideration of the particular function and delegation and the presence of a right of appeal. A decision taken by someone who is not a judge is not necessarily a decision by a non-independent party. Indeed, in private litigation between parties, I can see no reason why a decision by an authorised officer should not be a decision by an independent party compliant with Article 6.

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8: The Schedule, page 11, line 8, at end insert—

“67BA Right to judicial reconsideration of decision made by an authorised personA party to any decision made by an authorised person in the execution of the person’s duty as an authorised person exercising a relevant judicial function, by virtue of section 67B(1), may apply in writing, within 14 days of the service of the order, to have the decision reconsidered by a judge of the relevant court within 14 days from the date of application.”

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

My Lords, once more I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the discussion, which once again highlighted the fundamental differences on the principles in this Bill between some of us on each side of this House. I have tried hard not to be completely disruptive to the idea that certain, non-contentious, administrative decisions might be delegated as part of modernising the justice system in the 21st century, but I have heard no satisfactory response to the recommendations by Lord Justice Briggs.

These judicial decisions that will be delegated will be uncontentious or contentious. If it is the latter, Article 6 rights are engaged and, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Marks, I cannot see how junior members of court staff—potentially not even three years post-qualification in their legal experience, and employed by the Government—are going to be independent and impartial for the purposes of satisfying Article 6.

The assurance that I am given in response to this concern is that I should put trust in the rule committees to make judgments about which decisions that have been delegated to these junior staff should and should not be subject to reconsideration by a judge. My concern is that the rule committees will be under the same pressure that the judiciary is under in relation to all this. It is a pressure with which I sympathise and which has been reflected eloquently in contributions to this debate by noble Lords and noble and learned Lords in particular.

At the end of the day, the rule committees do not have the access to the budget that would make it possible to ensure reconsiderations where they are required. Therefore, it seems rather unfair to put the pressure on the committees. The committee may feel that it has no choice because it cannot fund a system of adequate judicial consideration, which is because it cannot fund an adequate justice system in this country. That is not a state of affairs that I believe your Lordships’ House would want to sanction. With that in mind, I beg to move and seek to test the mood of the House.

Amendments 9 and 10

Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [HL] Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Ministry of Justice

Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [HL]

(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Baroness Chakrabarti Excerpts
Tuesday 10th July 2018

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Ministry of Justice

1: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—

“Report on availability of judicial training to support deployment

(1) Within twelve months of the coming into force of section 1, the Lord Chancellor must publish a report on the availability of the judicial training necessary to enable judges to be deployed more flexibly.(2) The report under subsection (1) must be laid before each House of Parliament.”

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab) - Hansard

My Lords, at Second Reading, it was widely acknowledged around the House that there were practical arguments for expanding the flexible deployment of judges, including some temporary judges appointed outside the usual Judicial Appointments Commission selection process, to a wider pool of courts and tribunals. However, the appointment of temporary judges as a principle should be approached with caution. Further, it is important to view flexible deployment in general through the prism of the Government’s wider programme of reforms and cuts. Given the planned savings on judicial salaries, we have to ask whether the provisions are at least in part a short cut to make up for a shortfall—even a crisis—in the recruitment of permanent judges that will become a de facto cost-saving measure. Any trend towards an increasing reliance on temporary judges would be worrying. Temporary judges, most likely seeking permanent appointment, are by their nature less independent than their permanent counterparts.

The Government should surely provide greater evidence of the need for these provisions, such as the detail of the changes in business demand referred to in the impact assessment and the reasoning for the proportionality of these measures. If introduced, it is surely a reasonable requirement on the Government to ensure that proper training is made available for these temporary appointments whose deployment will involve oversight of areas of law new to the personnel concerned. This is already a routine practice in the deployment of judges in the Crown Court: the paucity of Crown Court judges with a criminal law background is well acknowledged and, arguably, none the less regrettable. There is no argument against proper provision of support and training to those less practised, temporary judges or, indeed, permanent judges deployed in new areas. Given the backdrop of major cuts to the MoJ, the need for effective and proper training is all the more acute to ensure the quality of judicial practice. That is why I am probing with this amendment and I beg to move.

Lord Beith Portrait Lord Beith (LD) - Hansard

This gives us an opportunity to look at whether the training is intended to embrace the increasing use of online and virtual court facilities. We cannot advance that cause in the context of the Bill, because it has been drafted to exclude some of the things that we all assumed were part of the modernisation programme. It would indeed be difficult to ensure that the training and deployment of judges meant that they were well equipped for these changes, because we do not know what the parliamentary underpinning would be, but this would be a useful moment for the Minister to indicate how far the well-declared and strongly supported plans that emerged from the Briggs and Leveson reports form part of the Government’s thinking on how judicial deployment and training should operate.

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The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Keen of Elie) (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, as the noble Baroness said, this amendment would require the Lord Chancellor to publish, within 12 months of Clause 1 coming into force, a report on the availability of training for judges that will enable them to be flexibly deployed.

As has been noted, the Lord Chief Justice and indeed the Senior President of Tribunals already have far-reaching powers of deployment. The measures in the Bill seek to amend and build on existing powers in legislation. Of course, it is the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals who are responsible for arrangements for the training of the judiciary. As the noble and learned Lords, Lord Judge and Lord Neuberger, observed, it will be for the Lord Chief Justice, who is responsible for training, to report on these matters, as he seeks to do in his annual report. It would not be appropriate in these circumstances for that responsibility to pass to the Lord Chancellor.

With regard to funding for training, the Lord Chancellor is committed to providing suitable funding for the judiciary; that includes funding in the area of training, particularly by the Judicial College. I add only that that is in accordance with the arrangements that have to be made for resourcing under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. As I indicated, the Senior President of Tribunals has an equivalent responsibility in relation to judges and members of the tribunals within the scope of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. Those responsibilities are exercised through the Judicial College.

The report that the Lord Chief Justice provides with regard to judicial training is a report to Parliament, so it will be available to Parliament in due course. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for the Lord Chancellor to report to Parliament on the availability of judicial training, a matter that is properly for the senior judiciary.

In these circumstances, I venture that the amendment is unnecessary. We can be confident that all our judges are recommended for appointment by the Judicial Appointments Commission following a rigorous process. At a minimum, they will have met the statutory eligibility criteria for the relevant office. In relation to the offices in Clause 1, in many cases the judges will have already met the statutory eligibility criteria. In addition, when it is required, they will have also demonstrated specialist expertise—for example, where judges are appointed or authorised to specific jurisdictions, such as the Commercial Court, the Media and Communications List and the Technology and Construction Court or TCC.

The Judicial College strategy for 2018-20, published in December last year, states:

“All newly appointed and newly assigned judicial office holders will receive induction training”.

It says that, over this period:

“The College expects to deliver more induction training to support increasing flexibility of judicial deployment across courts and tribunals when workload fluctuates”.

The Judicial College has also been devising more cross-jurisdictional training in skills required for all jurisdictions because of the flexibility in deployment that will be available.

On whether or not the provisions in Clause 1 will make a significant contribution to what has been referred to as the recruitment crisis, I cannot say that on its own it will make a significant contribution to recruitment, but certainly the flexibility that is being introduced into the system may assist in that regard. We recognise that more needs to be done with regard to that matter. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, will be aware that the terms and conditions of the senior judiciary will be the subject of a report later this year. I look forward to that so that we can consider how the matter can be taken forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Beith, raised the rollout of digitisation with regard to the court process. Of course, we hope eventually to bring all these developments together. They are complementary to each other. I acknowledge that we have not yet been able to introduce further provision within the narrow confines of this Bill, but it is our intention that the provisions anticipated by the Queen’s Speech, and indeed laid out in the original Prison and Courts Bill, will be brought forward when legislative time allows.

I hope that I have gone some way to reassuring the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that the appropriate training arrangements are in place to support flexible deployment of the judiciary and that she will see fit to withdraw her amendment. I pause to observe that the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, arise in respect of later groups. Perhaps I may address them at that time.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

I am grateful to the Minister for that reassurance as to process and to other noble and learned Lords for their exposition of the responsibilities on the Lord Chief Justice, the Judicial College and so on. I have yet to be reassured, however, about the adequacy of funding for this training or the adequacy of funding to the MoJ to deal with, among other things, this recruitment crisis. I fear that we may have to return to this matter but, for the moment at least, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 1.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

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Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, this amendment would require the Secretary of State to assess and report on the impact on judicial diversity of the measures before noble Lords today.

The judiciary already has wide powers to deploy judges between jurisdictions in our courts and tribunals. The judicial deployment measures in the Bill are intended to amend existing legislation in specific areas to enhance these powers to ensure that judges continue to be deployed where needed and appropriate. Being able to make the best use of judges’ time and expertise to react to changes in case loads of different jurisdictions has benefits for all court and tribunal users.

The measures are targeted to specified judicial roles and are intended to fill gaps in existing deployment measures. They are therefore limited in scope. As the measures are about how our existing judiciary may be deployed, they do not impact directly on new appointments to the judiciary.

Implementing these measures will largely follow existing processes by which the senior judiciary authorise judges to sit in additional courts or tribunals. In the interests of fairness and transparency, where it is appropriate in accordance with the circumstances of each case, deployment decisions will be taken following an expression of interest exercise across the eligible pool of judges.

Increases in flexible deployment may enable individuals to gain valuable experience in sitting in other jurisdictions. For example, the measure which provides for the 14 senior employment judges also to be judges of the unified tribunals may enable them to demonstrate their competencies across a broader range of case types. This may in future result in more diverse appointments to higher courts and tribunals.

I am sure that all Members of your Lordships’ House would agree with many or most of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Marks. I, too, have a long-standing interest in this area. However, I was struck by the assumption he sometimes seems to hold that only women have caring responsibilities. I hope he will agree that men should care, too.

I am happy to place on record this Government’s commitment to working with the judiciary and the Judicial Appointments Commission to increase judicial diversity. We have seen gradual improvements in gender and ethnic diversity since 2014, but we know that there is more to do to improve judicial diversity at all levels. For example, the representation of men and women from BAME communities has increased from 6% to 7% in the courts and from 9% to 10% in tribunals, and the first BAME judge was appointed to the Court of Appeal in 2017. The judiciary publishes annual judicial diversity statistics, and this year’s publication will take place on Thursday.

It is important for the quality, independence and impartiality of our judges that we always appoint the most talented candidates on merit. We know that there are many talented potential candidates from a diverse range of backgrounds and we want to encourage and support even more of them to apply for judicial office. That is why the Ministry of Justice strongly supports the work of the Judicial Diversity Forum and works as part of the forum alongside legal professional bodies, judicial representatives and the Judicial Appointments Commission to co-ordinate action to increase judicial diversity.

In April we announced funding for a pre-application judicial education programme, PAJE, which will provide information and support to those considering a judicial role, and will be targeted in particular at those from underrepresented groups. This is very much a partnership project, and the Ministry of Justice is working closely with the Judicial College, members of the judiciary, the Bar Council, the Law Society and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives to finalise the programme content. We anticipate that the first candidates will be able to participate in PAJE in early 2019.

There are several other initiatives and support schemes for potential candidates from diverse groups that are run by the Judicial Office and the legal professions, and supported by the Judicial Appointments Commission. These include outreach events, judicial-run workshops and mentoring schemes.

The Lord Chancellor is personally committed to working with the Lord Chief Justice and the chair of the Judicial Appointments Commission to consider all practical actions that would impact positively on diversity, assess the impact of our existing activities and measure progress. The Lord Chancellor appears regularly before the Justice Select Committee and the Lords Constitution Committee on matters relating to the judiciary, including diversity. We think that this is the appropriate and proportionate way of advising noble Lords on actions that we are taking to improve judicial diversity.

I hope that what I have said has reassured the noble Lord of our commitment to improving judicial diversity—

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

I apologise for intervening. Before the noble Baroness sits down—I love this convention—I was just thinking about her comments on meritocracy and the importance of having merit. Surely she is not suggesting an inherent tension between merit and diversity. I was a little concerned that she might be satisfied with the current pace of change. Have I misunderstood that? Is she not impatient for a greater speed of change in this area, in the light of the constitutional and public concerns aired by the noble Lord, Lord Marks?

Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait Baroness Vere of Norbiton - Hansard

I think that the noble Baroness is perhaps not entirely understanding my comments. It is absolutely key that we get the best candidates into the job. The point of this is to make sure that the pool of possible candidates is as broad as possible. No candidate, whether they be from a BAME community, female or disabled, should be left out of the pool—and from that pool it is important that we select those candidates who are the best for that particular job.

I hope that, in the light of my comments, the noble Lord will be content to withdraw his amendment.

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3: Clause 3, page 3, line 24, leave out subsection (3) and insert—

“( ) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

My Lords, currently the Bill provides that regulations under Clause 3 shall be made under the negative resolution procedure and then interact with rules of court to be made and come into force without the need for parliamentary scrutiny altogether. This stipulation of which judicial functions may be delegated and to whom, and an authorised person’s requisite qualifications or experience, is to be provided with quite light parliamentary scrutiny. I would be grateful to the noble and learned Lord or the noble Baroness if they would say a little more in their reply about the relationship between the regulations and the rules for those purposes.

Since the fall of the Prisons and Courts Bill last year, there has been no parliamentary scrutiny, even by the Justice Committee, of the Government’s ambitious programme of expensive modernisation measures or the associated court closures and staff cuts. By providing that regulations in the Bill be made under the negative resolution procedure, the Government seem once more to be seeking to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny, even in relation to quite significant changes to our justice system.

At Second Reading, in response to similar concerns, the Minister said that,

“the purpose of primary legislation is to implement law, not to review that which we can already do”.—[Official Report, 20/6/18; col. 2053.]

On reflection, I respectfully disagree with that constitutional analysis. To my mind, the legislative process is to create law and certainly, at times, to review, direct and even constrain government policy, particularly when it has the potential profoundly to impact on our justice system. Without careful scrutiny and additional safeguards, this governmental drip feed may be capable of eroding some of our most fundamental institutions. I beg to move.

Lord Judge Portrait Lord Judge - Hansard

My Lords, there should be an upgrade here, in accordance with the proposed amendment.

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Lord Keen of Elie - Hansard

My Lords, Amendment 3 relates to the power in Clause 3 for the Secretary of State to make consequential, transitional, transitory or saving provisions in relation to the authorised staff provisions by way of regulations. It provides that they are subject to a process of negative resolution by Parliament, while the amendment seeks to apply the affirmative resolution procedure.

We believe that it is necessary to take the power in Clause 3(2) to avoid any implementation difficulties or legislative inconsistencies that could arise from changing the law. We have already identified consequential amendments to primary legislation and have made provision for them in the Schedule to the Bill. The necessary changes to secondary legislation may not become apparent until after the provisions in the Bill are implemented; therefore, this power is needed so that the authorised staff provisions can be given full effect. However, I emphasise that it is not concerned with making consequential amendments to primary legislation, for which provision is already made in the Schedule, and so this is a narrow power. As I indicated, the power cannot be used to amend primary legislation, so in these circumstances we considered that the negative resolution procedure is entirely appropriate.

I hear what noble Lords and noble and learned Lords have said about moving from the negative to the affirmative procedure, and I will give further thought to that. However, at this stage I invite the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister, and in particular to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, for their kind encouragement. In the light of all that, I am happy at this stage to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 3 withdrawn.

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5: The Schedule, page 6, line 36, at end insert—

“( ) is a qualified solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive with more than three years’ experience post-qualification, and”

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

My Lords, I will also speak to Amendments 6 and 7. These amendments in aggregate stipulate that authorised persons must have the following minimum legal qualifications: to be,

“a qualified solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive with more than three years’ experience post-qualification”,

as recommended by the Law Society. Clause 3 delegates judicial functions to authorised staff, which must be understood in the broader context of the wider reform agenda and the austerity measures behind it. The savings generated through the proposed reforms will arise only through the reduction of the court estate, together with savings in judicial salaries. Further proposals include the relocation to new off-site service centres of many case management functions, listings and scheduling, which currently take place within court buildings with the benefit of on-site judicial supervision. The implication has to be that these off-site service centres will be supervised by authorised staff and not by judges. Concerns about that eventuality are hardly assuaged by the assurance in the related policy note that authorised staff will remain under the supervision of the judiciary if the judiciary are not on site.

The prospect of authorised staff performing judicial functions when they are not subject to the training, experience, ethos and oaths of professional judges but are employed directly by HMCTS raises questions of accountability and independence, and concerns that they might be subject to administrative pressures, such as meeting HMCTS targets. Without reasonable limits on who can be authorised, this delegation has the potential to change the essential nature of our judicial system. Transparent and public scrutiny by parliamentarians with a democratic mandate is necessary. Although I acknowledge that the remit of the relevant procedure rule committee is to set out requirements, procedure is a different matter from this kind of delegation and the issue of setting out qualifications.

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A further question was raised by my noble friend Lady McIntosh, who is no longer in the Chamber, on consultation with justices’ clerks regarding these proposals. The Government consulted on the role of justices’ clerks in 2016, and justices’ clerks responded to that consultation. There is nothing in the reforms touching on justices’ clerks in this context that will directly lead to staff having to travel further for the purposes of their engagement in these matters. With that explanation, and having regard to the fact we have now published the draft regulations, I again invite the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, not to press her amendments.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that. I certainly do not seek to place a straitjacket on reasonable management of the court system, but I am still concerned about the breadth of this power to delegate judicial functions in particular. These amendments, which are probing at this stage, are all of a piece. In the light of the further debate to come, for the time being I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 5 withdrawn.

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8: The Schedule, page 10, line 33, at end insert—

“( ) No authorisation under subsection (2) shall include the power to—(a) make an order of the court which is opposed by one or more party,(b) make any order of the court in a civil claim with a value of more than £25,000,(c) make any order of the court with a penal notice or power of arrest,(d) make any order of the court in a matter in which one or more parties lack capacity as defined in section 2(1) of the Mental Capacity Act 2005,(e) make any order of the court in a matter in which one or more witnesses are a vulnerable witness as defined in section 16(1) of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999,(f) make any order of the court under section 37 of the Senior Courts Act 1981 for an injunction, including any freezing order,(g) make any order of the court, referred to as a “search order”, under section 7 of the Civil Procedure Act 1997,(h) make any order of the court as to costs,(i) make any order of the court concerning expert evidence,(j) take a plea from a defendant in criminal proceedings, or(k) make any other determination which is dispositive of the cause.”

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

My Lords, in moving Amendment 8, I will speak to Amendment 10. Once more, these amendments would place restrictions in the Bill as to what type of function will be permitted to be delegated to authorised persons. The previous amendments were about who might be an authorised person. The restrictions this time include that no authorisation,

“shall include the power to … make an order of the court which is opposed by one or more party … make any order of the court in a civil claim with a value of more than £25,000 … make any order of the court with a penal notice or power of arrest”.

The stated intent of the policy of delegating judicial powers is to improve the efficiency of the courts service by diverting judges’ time from routine administrative tasks to allow them to focus their time and expertise on more complex and significant matters. However, there must be reasonable limits to what powers can be given to authorised persons who are not judges. Without those limits, we have a power that has the potential to change the essential nature of our judicial system. I am sure that this is not the Government’s intention, but we need to construct this power for future Governments of whatever stripe because significant judicial power should be exercised by judges.

While it is almost impossible to create a definitive or exhaustive list of appropriate judicial functions for the delegations that will cover every tribunal and eventuality, it is reasonable to expect some red lines and limits relating to the most significant decisions and exercise of power. It does not seem unreasonable to ask that Parliament have an opportunity to set out a framework for such delegation and to exclude decisions that deprive an individual of their liberty or of life-changing sums of money for most people, and decisions that parties have contested or those involving vulnerable witnesses or people lacking mental capacity.

Other provisions in the amendment provide a mop-up of what might provide a red line around a decision which could dispose of a matter altogether. Lord Briggs drew such a line in his civil court structure review, at caseworkers making dispositive decisions, which he saw essentially as a judicial role. All delegated functions in the civil jurisdiction are routine case management functions and are often confined to cases where all parties consent. Legal advisers do not currently make decisions that represent a final determination and a party may request reconsideration of any decision of a legal adviser within 14 days of being served notice of it. Are these not therefore reasonable restrictions to place on delegated functions in the context of criminal proceedings, where so much is potentially at stake? The MoJ’s own factsheet on delegation to staff says that delegated decisions are unlikely to involve contested matters. Why not put such a reasonable restriction in the Bill, given that many case management decisions are potentially important judicial functions that should not be delegated?

In addition to concerns about transparency, there is a danger that efficiencies gained by delegating case management decisions will be lost if the court then has to reconsider such decisions at a later stage in the process. Further, if one accepts the case for the limited delegation of some of the most straightforward decisions to such authorised staff, one has to raise concerns that these relatively low-paid staff—HMCTS staff being paid less than other government lawyers—are being used to save money without proper remuneration for their increased workload. I beg to move.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames - Hansard

My Lords, I have some sympathy with two of the new paragraphs proposed in the amendments. I have sympathy with those relating to orders of the tribunal or the court with a penal notice or power of arrest. I have some sympathy, too, with the restriction on the power of a court to make an order under Section 37 of the Senior Courts Act for an injunction, including any freezing order, and the corresponding power for the tribunal.

I am afraid that is as far as my support goes for the noble Baroness’s amendment, because all the other powers may be entirely trivial. In particular, the noble Baroness places reliance on the idea that a contested order should not be made. Some contested orders are unbelievably trivial. If I seek a 14-day extension for the service of my defence and the other side says that I should do it in seven, and the authorised person says, “Well, you can have 10”, the idea that he or she should not have the power to make that order is wrong.

One has to leave it to the good sense of the rule committees to decide where it is sensible that such restrictions should be drawn. Injunctions are in a different category and where the liberty of the individual is at stake we have a different category, but otherwise I am afraid I cannot support the amendments.

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Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait Baroness Vere of Norbiton - Hansard

My Lords, I thank all contributors to this short debate. These amendments seek to place in the Bill a list of functions that authorised staff would not be permitted to undertake. I ask the same question that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, asked at Second Reading: do we really want to put such restrictions—which he described as a fetter on the administration of justice—in this Bill? An example would be the proposal to prevent authorised officers making orders that are opposed by one or more party. I accept that there will be circumstances in which it could be inappropriate for an authorised member of staff to adjudicate on such a matter. However, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Marks, pointed out, where, for example, the parties to a case are simply disagreeing about a date on which a hearing should be set, should it not be possible for an authorised member of staff to deal with this under the supervision of a judge?

I fully understand the intention behind these amendments and recognise the importance of ensuring that adequate safeguards are in place. Our provisions ensure that the judicial functions that authorised staff may or may not exercise will be subject to appropriate scrutiny by experts, generally in the form of the procedure rule committees. The Bill will also ensure that, where staff are authorised to provide legal advice or to exercise judicial functions, they are suitably experienced and qualified. It is important to recognise that the concept of authorised staff performing judicial functions is not a new one for courts and tribunals. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service staff can already be authorised to exercise the jurisdiction of almost every court or tribunal, up to and including the High Court and Upper Tribunal. Rule committees already have experience in deciding the functions that such staff may exercise.

I remind noble Lords that the purpose of these provisions is to increase the efficiency of our courts by allowing authorised staff to undertake a wider range of functions under the supervision of judges, so that judges themselves are free to deal with the more complex matters before them. This amendment would not only place unnecessary limitations on what we could achieve in this area but would undermine the progress that we have already made. For example, justices’ clerks and assistant justices’ clerks currently make cost orders and search orders in appropriate cases. They also make orders for special measures for vulnerable defendants, victims and witnesses giving evidence, such as the use of video links and screens. They carry out these tasks efficiently and effectively.

The Bill provisions build on the existing process for assignment of judicial responsibilities in a sensible and proportionate way, and will allow authorised staff to carry out judicial functions in the Crown Court for the first time. Staff will be authorised by the Lord Chief Justice or his nominee and will work under the supervision of the judiciary. The Bill puts decision-making as to which functions may or may not be exercised by authorised staff in the right hands: the procedure rule committees. Here, the powers can be properly scrutinised by judges, practitioners and other interested parties. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, spoke powerfully about his own experience of chairing the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee, the expertise of the committee and the fact that it always managed to reach consensus. The judiciary is ultimately responsible for authorising court and tribunal staff to exercise such functions and, as is currently the case, it will do so only if satisfied as to their competence. As pointed out by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, procedure rules are also subject to parliamentary scrutiny via the negative resolution procedure which provides an additional check on these provisions. In the light of the reasons I have set out, I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, will withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

My Lords, I am once again grateful to the Minister and to other noble Lords for engaging in the argument for the amendments. I fully understand that this is all about efficiency, but that is not completely reassuring in the context of the biggest cuts to any department, even in a time of significant austerity.

I fear that the public outside this Palace think of the adjudication of contested matters in a court as a judicial function. That is the general perception of the public of what happens when there is a dispute between parties in the courts. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest, for example, that only a judge should be responsible in court for depriving someone of their liberty, or indeed, for making orders involving large sums of money. Noble Lords will forgive me for saying that even some of the more trivial decisions referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, could be far less than trivial in a given context. I am being offered the reassurance of the procedure rule committee, but delegating judicial functions to non-judges is not a matter of mere procedure.

I am afraid that I feel this is a question of principle, to which we may have to return again on Report. But for the time being, at least, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 8 withdrawn.

Break in Debate

9: The Schedule, page 11, line 8, at end insert—

“67BA Right to judicial reconsideration of decision made by an authorised personA party to any decision made by an authorised person in the execution of the person’s duty as an authorised person exercising a relevant judicial function, by virtue of section 67B(1), may apply in writing, within 14 days of the service of the order, to have the decision reconsidered by a judge of the relevant court within 14 days from the date of application.”

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

My Lords, in moving Amendment 9, I shall also speak to Amendment 11, both of which have been drafted by the Bar Council. The amendments will ensure that a,

“party to any decision made by an authorised person in the execution of … a relevant judicial function”,

or, “of a tribunal”,

“by virtue of section 67B(1)”,

or,

“by virtue of paragraph 3 of Schedule 5”,

respectively,

“may apply in writing, within 14 days of the service of the order, to have the decision reconsidered by a judge of the relevant court within 14 days from the date of application”.

The statutory right of reconsideration sits alongside the other amendments we have been discussing to create some constraint on this delegation of judicial function to non-judges. That approach would allow any,

“party to a decision made by an authorised person … to have the decision reconsidered by a judge”,

as recommended by Lord Justice Briggs in his 2016 report, Civil Courts Structure Review. He said:

“The creation of an extensive right to have the decisions of Case Officers reconsidered by a judge has from the outset been regarded as the natural safety valve for concerns about what was … described as the delegation of judicial functions to persons who are not judges”.

As a minimum safeguard, the right of reconsideration has the benefit of freeing an authorised person from the obligation to produce detailed reasons for every decision, as would be the case if a right of appeal were created. It has the additional benefit of going further than a right of review, guaranteeing judicial oversight of the decision, which a right of review would not ensure.

The statutory right would also ensure compliance with Article 6 of the Convention on Human Rights, which requires decisions by an independent and impartial person. I beg to move.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames - Hansard

My Lords, I fully support the noble Baroness’s Amendments 9 and 11. It seems to me that the Bar Council is absolutely right to draw a distinction between the nature of rules specifying what decisions can be made by authorised persons and the question of whether such decisions made by authorised persons should be subject to a review.

The noble and learned Lord was good enough to circulate to us not only the draft statutory instrument that he mentioned but the policy statement in support of it. It is quite clear that the procedure rule committees will be responsible for making the decision as to what decisions should be made by authorised persons: that is, the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee, the Family Procedure Rule Committee and the Civil Procedure Rule Committee. Of course, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, is right to point out that those rule committees make rules that are both subject to scrutiny by Parliament and subject to approval by the Lord Chief Justice. However, that does not have a bearing on the question of whether decisions, once made, should be reviewable.

I commend these two amendments because they set a simple and short time limit of 14 days for making the application for review, and a further 14 days only for the decision upon that review. Furthermore, I believe that there is some benefit to be gained from uniformity, so that all such decisions made by authorised persons are subject to the same time limits and the same procedure. It seems to me that to have different rules for different types of decisions would be a mistake.

I would of course expect that, in due course, the review provisions would be implemented by applying a test that the decision of an authorised person would be overturned only if it was outwith the range of reasonable responses to the question posed to the authorised person—the traditional appellate test, rather than a fundamental review test. Subject to that, it seems to me that to give an authorised person an unappealable, unreviewable power to make what will sometimes be very important decisions, even if they are sanctioned by the rules, would be going too far. So I support these amendments.

Break in Debate

Lord Keen of Elie - Hansard

Again, I am obliged to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, and other noble Lords for their contributions on this matter. Of course, the purpose of the amendments is to give a party in a case the right to request in writing that any decision of an authorised person exercising the functions of a court or tribunal be considered afresh by a judge.

The Schedule to the Bill ensures that the functions of a court or judge that authorised staff may exercise will be determined, and be given appropriate scrutiny, by experts in the form of the independent procedure rule committees. The purpose of these provisions is to enable authorised staff to undertake straightforward case management and preparation duties, thereby freeing up judges to focus on more complex and contentious matters. We are not proposing that these officeholders will undertake, for example, the determination of the final outcome in a contested case. It is our view that a statutory right set out in the Bill to have any decision made by an authorised person considered afresh by a judge would be inappropriate and disproportionate.

I have some sympathy with the intention behind the amendments and the desire to provide protections for court users. Our view, which I believe is reflected in the observations of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, is that a decision about whether a right to reconsideration is needed should be left to the experts on the rule committees who are best placed to understand the circumstances in which a review mechanism may be required in their particular jurisdictions. It is not a case of one size fits all. To that extent, I would take issue with the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Marks. The committees should also consider any appropriate time limits for review and the way in which any application should be made. Again, that is essentially a matter for the committees.

These provisions already exist in our procedure rules. Practice Direction 2E of the Civil Procedure Rules makes express provision for review in civil money claims of a decision by a legal adviser. Under the tribunals procedure, in accordance with Rule 4(3) of the Tribunal Procedure (Upper Tribunal) Rules 2008, there may be a review of a decision made by a caseworker. In the magistrates’ court, there is provision for an application to be renewed before the magistrates where it has been dealt with previously by a caseworker. In the Crown Court, there is an inherent jurisdiction to hear such applications at the time of an appropriate hearing. I seek to emphasise that there is a diversity of approaches, all of which generally apply their mind to the question of the review of the decision of a caseworker, and those reflect the views of the relevant rule committee as to what is appropriate for the particular tribunal, court or level of court. That is what we feel should be left open and which would be lost by this amendment.

I go back to an observation that was made earlier, quoting the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, at Second Reading, that,

“detailed restrictions on procedure are a very real fetter on the administration of justice”.—[Official Report, 20/6/18; col. 2039.]

That is what we want to free up here. It is appropriate that these decisions should be made by the procedure rule committees. I hope that in the light of those observations, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, will see fit to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti - Hansard

Once more, I am grateful to the Minister and other noble Lords for engaging with this argument. I do not wish to bore your Lordships’ with this, but there are some really serious concerns at play. I am told to be reassured by the rule committees, and of course I hold the rule committees in enormous esteem, but the rule committees cannot provide the funding that would avoid pressure to overdelegate to underqualified people in the future. When I raise these concerns, I am told that I must not worry because of the rule committees.

My second concern is that the public have a real and reasonable expectation that significant contested decisions in a court will be made by a judge; or, if not, at least that there would be a right of appeal or review before a judge. In the light of the repeated reassurances in the context of different attempts to constrain delegation in the Bill, we will have to return to this issue on Report. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 9 withdrawn.

Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [HL]

(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
Baroness Chakrabarti Excerpts
Wednesday 20th June 2018

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Ministry of Justice
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Keen of Elie) (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, the Bill is a vital first step in delivering legislation to underpin our ambitious and far-reaching programme to create a modern, world-class courts and justice system that is swift, straightforward and works for everyone. Our programme of reform will also foster innovation and cement our reputation for global legal excellence.

In our manifesto, and in last year’s Queen’s Speech, the Government committed to modernising our courts and tribunals so they are fit for the 21st century. The way justice is administered and delivered in our courts and tribunals cannot stand still while the world changes around them. The justice system must embrace new technologies and seize the opportunities of the digital revolution. It must work for, and fit in with, the way people live their lives today. But modernisation must also ensure that the judiciary and staff who work in our courts and tribunals are empowered to deliver smooth and efficient justice. We have a world-class judiciary, and through the Bill we want to enable it to continue to deploy its time and expertise where and when it is most needed.

The Bill will assist in a number of different ways. It will allow suitably qualified and experienced staff to be authorised to handle uncontroversial, straightforward matters under judicial supervision. This will free up judges’ time to focus on more complex matters and will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the courts and tribunal system. The independent procedure rule committees will determine which functions staff may exercise in each jurisdiction. These judicially led committees are the right bodies to take these decisions, and this will ensure that the powers are properly scrutinised by judges, practitioners and other interested parties.

The Bill will make it possible for staff to carry out judicial functions in the Crown Court, where the activities of court officers are currently restricted to “formal and administrative matters” only. The Crown Court judiciary currently spends far too much time on routine tasks which could be delegated, such as changes to the starting time of a hearing, or changing the pretrial preparation hearing date, even if the parties are all in agreement about these matters. The Bill also removes the post of justices’ clerk, to enable the creation of a more flexible, cross-jurisdictional leadership role for authorised staff.

All this is subject to a robust framework of authorisation that affords the court and tribunal staff who exercise these functions the right protections and safeguards. Most significantly, the Bill makes such staff independent of the Lord Chancellor but accountable to the judiciary. Courts and tribunal staff will be able to exercise judicial functions only once authorised to do so by the Lord Chief Justice or his nominee, or the Senior President of Tribunals or his delegate. The judiciary will grant such authorisation only when satisfied that the relevant staff have the necessary competence and experience to exercise these functions. The Bill also applies to authorised staff the same protections that currently apply to justices’ clerks and assistants to justices’ clerks carrying out judicial functions in the magistrates’ and family courts. This includes protecting them from costs in legal proceedings and indemnification in respect of anything they do, or do not do, when exercising judicial functions in good faith.

Alongside these changes, the Bill includes measures to ensure that the system of judicial deployment is as flexible as possible. It will give the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals greater flexibility to make the best use of our judges’ experience, expertise and time. The judicial measures in the Bill include enabling recorders to sit in the Upper Tribunal and senior employment judges to sit as judges in the First-tier Tribunal and Upper Tribunal. This will broaden the pool of expertise that the tribunals can draw from to help them meet business needs. They also include extending the range of High Court judges to act as arbitrators. This will help meet the growth in demand in recent years for arbitration—for example, to resolve cases in the Chancery Division of the High Court. They will also remove the restriction on a judge being the president of more than one chamber of the First-tier Tribunal or Upper Tribunal. This will give the Senior President of Tribunals greater flexibility to manage the leadership of the tribunals without having to recruit and appoint a new chamber president immediately that there is a vacancy. Taken together, these measures will enable the judiciary to respond to the changing demands of the case loads of different jurisdictions and will make the best use of the existing cohort of judges to benefit all users of our courts and tribunals.

We are delivering the court reform programme in partnership with the senior judiciary. I am pleased that the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals have welcomed the Bill, commenting that its introduction is,

“a positive first step in legislation to deliver reform”.

Most of the measures have already been before Parliament as part of the Prisons and Courts Bill, which fell when the general election was called. The Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill is very much a first step, and we will bring forward further courts legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.

We have not stood still waiting for this Bill; we have been pressing on with reform in areas where primary legislation is not required and we are making significant progress in enabling access to justice through online and digital means. In May, we rolled out nationally an online divorce service, allowing couples to apply for uncontested divorce digitally for the first time. People can also now make pleas online for low-level offences, such as traffic offences, and they can respond to jury summonses, track social security appeals, and issue and respond to civil money claims, all online. Over 16,000 people have already engaged with these pilots and are getting straightforward, digital access to the courts for the first time. The Bill supports that wider reform by making sure that we make best use of our judiciary and courts staff as we develop these new approaches to delivering justice.

The Bill, and our wider package of reforms, will ensure that our courts and tribunals system is fit for the 21st century and the digital age. It will help to ensure that both the judges and staff of our courts and tribunals are able to respond to the changing demands of a reformed system and, ultimately, to deliver better services for court users. The Bill marks an important first step in delivering a reformed courts and tribunals system and I commend it to the House. I beg to move.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab) - Hansard

My Lords, like many in your Lordships’ House, I have spent much of my life critiquing, seeking to improve and sometimes downright opposing legislation that I have seen as flamboyantly intrusive and therefore unjust. Clearly, this Bill is not in that category. However, legislation can also be deficient for what it does not contain, as that might lead to injustice as well.

As the noble and learned Lord said, the Government’s Queen’s Speech promised a programme of reforms that would transform the way in which the UK justice system operates. He referred to that reform as “ambitious”. Unlike last year’s Prisons and Courts Bill, which dealt head-on with those proposed reforms, this Bill is, by contrast, perhaps the beginning of a legislative drip feed.

Today of all days, we are conscious of the challenges and complexities of minority government. Clearly, one approach is the very skilful drafting of the scope of this Bill, with its very tight Long Title, perhaps to avoid controversy, amendment and so on. However, another approach in challenging times of minority government might be to be a little more ambitious and out in the open, and to pursue that ambition by consent. My hope would be that, during the passage and conduct of the Bill, the Government might consider moving from the more cautious to the more open approach to debating these matters—these ambitions—and subjecting them to appropriate parliamentary scrutiny. As the Minister just said, the reform programme is moving ahead in any event, in the absence of primary legislation, and one might query the appropriateness of that.

The reform programme cost of £1.2 billion to the taxpayer seeks to “modernise” the courts service by transferring more court hearings online or operating them through remote video links. Digital hearings will have implications worth considering for the principles of open justice and for public confidence in the justice system. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has raised concerns about the potentially detrimental impact on people with certain challenges and protected characteristics, who are more likely to be excluded by digital processes. My noble friend Lord Beecham will deal with this in more detail a little later.

There has been no real parliamentary scrutiny of this programme—this expensive modernising series of measures—or of the associated court closures and staff cuts, even by the Justice Committee. Since 2010 the Government have closed literally hundreds of courts and cut thousands of vital staff, with the Ministry of Justice launching a new consultation on further court closures in January. Opposition research suggests that 80% of the courts sold so far have raised on average little more than the average UK house price. This raises concerns over long-term damage to access to justice for civil litigants and indeed victims of crime.

Reductions in the number of local courts pile further pressure on those remaining courts, which are already creaking under the weight of budget and staff cuts over many years. So we on this side of your Lordships’ House ask and implore the Government not to proceed with any further court closures until legislation for this ambitious digitisation of courts programme is published and reforms can be subjected to full parliamentary and public scrutiny.

In May, the National Audit Office released a report on the Government’s ambitious reforms and it is pretty damning. Again, my noble friend Lord Beecham will consider this in more detail later. We already have precedent, however, of reforms to the justice system conducted without sufficient research and consultation. That precedent—not a great one—is LASPO.

LASPO has been an unmitigated disaster, widely criticised by expert stakeholders including the Bar Council, the Justice Committee and the Law Society. The Public Accounts Committee made it clear that in bringing forward that legislation the Ministry of Justice had,

“not properly assessed the full impact of the reforms”.

That impact has proved devastating for some of the most vulnerable people in our society, who as a result of those cuts have been shut out altogether from the legal aid system that we were once so proud of in this country.

The year before the relevant provisions of LASPO came into force, legal aid was granted in 925,000 cases. According to Amnesty, the year after it came into force assistance was given in fewer than 500,000 cases—a drop of 46% in legal assistance. This is not just a comparator. Drastic cuts to legal aid will and do have a direct relationship to pressures on judges and those who work in the court system when ill-advised and unassisted members of public turn up to seek justice.

Clause 3, as we have heard from the Minister, delegates judicial functions to authorised staff. This seemingly sensible and uncontroversial provision must be understood in the broader context of the wider reform agenda and the austerity measures behind it, because the savings generated through proposed reforms will arise only through the reduction of the court estate and through savings on judicial salaries. Further proposals include the relocation of many case management functions—listing, scheduling and so on—which currently take place within court buildings with the benefit of on-site judicial supervision. The implication is that these decisions will move to new off-site service centres—which I think we have all experienced with varying degrees of satisfaction in relation to other services. Given their off-site nature, the implication that these service centres will be supervised by authorised staff, not judges, is worrying. To have authorised staff who are not subject to the training, experience, ethos and oaths that a professional judge is, and who are performing judicial functions but employed directly by HMCTS, raises questions worth considering of accountability and independence. Concerns that they would be subject to administrative pressures, such as meeting targets, are also worth thinking about.

The devil will, therefore, be in the detail of how these provisions might operate. Without limits on who can be authorised and what powers can be given to authorised persons, this delegation has the potential, as currently drafted, to change the essential nature of our justice system. Transparent and public scrutiny by parliamentarians with a democratic mandate is necessary. While acknowledging the great work over many years and the existing remit of the procedure rule committee, I really would query whether delegation of judicial functions can be thought of as a simple procedural matter for a rules committee as opposed to something worthy of secondary legislation in both Houses of Parliament. If one accepts the case for the limited delegation of some of the most straightforward decisions to authorised staff, it is then potentially objectionable that these relatively low-paid staff—quite possibly paid less than lawyers in other government departments and who have already been hit by the public sector pay caps—are being used to save money, if they are not to be offered proper remuneration for this new, more challenging and increased workload.

On this side of your Lordships’ House, we will be seeking to probe the Government during the passage of this Bill and to push for a number of safeguards in the Bill, the first of which is limits to the delegation of these judicial powers to non-judicial personnel. The MoJ’s own factsheet on delegation to staff says that delegated decisions are unlikely to involve contested matters; why should that not appear in the Bill itself? Most case management decisions are vital judicial functions and, therefore, should not necessarily be delegated. Decisions that impact on the fairness of the process itself are, and must remain, the remit of judges and involve carefully weighing submissions by parties. In addition to concerns around transparency, there is a danger that efficiencies gained by delegating case management decisions will be lost if the court has to reconsider many of these decisions at a later stage in the process. There ought, again, to be minimum qualifications for these authorised staff in the Bill. The Law Society has suggested, for example, that no one with less than three years post-qualification legal practice—that is, a barrister or solicitor—should be delegated any judicial function under this Bill. That is a suggestion worth considering. Three years of post-qualification practice is not a high bar when you consider who may or may not take on a pupil or a trainee solicitor, for example, for supervision.

As your Lordships will have read, other interested parties have called for a statutory right of reconsideration allowing any party to a decision by an authorised person to have that decision reconsidered by a judge, as recommended by Lord Justice Briggs in his 2016 report. That statutory right would further assist in assuring compliance with Article 6 of the Convention on Human Rights, which requires decisions by an independent and impartial person.

Further, the Bar Council has called for key questions to be asked by your Lordships’ House on the nature and extent of the suggested powers of authorised staff. First, will the staff members have the power to determine the outcome of any matter which is contested by the parties? Secondly, if so, what rights of reconsideration would there be and to whom, and will this be consistent across all jurisdictions? Thirdly, will there be a right of reconsideration, not just a review or appeal? Fourthly, will staff be legally trained and, if so, to what level of qualification? Fifthly, in order to achieve the savings required, what is the number of judicial posts that the Government would expect to lose; and what number of additional authorised staff will the Government need to recruit? Sixthly, what are the limits to the functions that case officers should perform, and should not these be in the Bill to allow them to be subject to proper scrutiny?

Other provisions about the flexible deployment of judges are clearly of far less concern in this Bill but, none the less, the further and increased deployment of temporary judges to any court or tribunal on which a deputy judge of the High Court is able to sit is still worth thinking about. Given the planned savings on judicial salaries, we have to ask whether these provisions are a short cut to make up for a shortfall in the recruitment of permanent judges. Any move towards increasing reliance in the system on temporary judges— who will most likely seek a permanent appointment in the longer term—would be of concern because of independence, which is less likely when someone is a temporary judge. The Government must provide greater evidence of the need for such reliance on temporary judges and explain the proportionality of such measures.

A further omission from the Bill—a point well made by Women’s Aid—is the provisions prohibiting the cross- examination of victims of domestic violence which we all looked forward to in the abortive Bill of last year. We should be concerned that those provisions are not in this Bill and ask for further assurances on them.

This is a wafer-thin Bill which, on its face, is apparently uncontroversial. However, as the Minister said, it is the beginning of the fulfilment of a further ambitious programme. The Government appear to be testing the waters for more controversial court reforms and it is vital that we understand the limited provisions in the Bill in the context of that broader agenda of reforms and devastating cuts. Nor should we be completely persuaded that the Bill in itself does not have the potential, as currently drafted and unamended, to profoundly impact upon our justice system as we have all understood and loved it. Without further careful scrutiny and additional safeguards, this governmental drip-feed approach has the potential to erode some of our most fundamental institutions.

Lord Beith Portrait Lord Beith (LD) - Hansard

My Lords, when the Bill was published, I described it as,

“a little mouse of a Bill”.—[Official Report, 6/6/18; col. 1306.]

I did so because it has been shorn of most of the provisions the Government had intended to include in legislation and is drafted in such a way as to try to discourage the addition of any of those provisions by way of amendments. That has to be set against the context of the Government’s very ambitious claims about what they were going to do to assist the justice system. In 2017, the government website stated that the then Prisons and Courts Bill would,

“transform the lives of offenders and put victims at the heart of the justice system, helping to create a safer and better society”.

But even if we look just at the briefing for the Queen’s Speech for this Parliament about the Government’s legislative intentions, it was a Bill that would,

“end the cross-examination of domestic violence victims”,

by those accused of perpetrating the violence. It was a Bill which would allow for fixed penalties for minor guilty pleas; it would allow fixed terms for some judicial leadership positions on the basis that some might be attracted to those posts if they could serve a shorter term in them; and it was in the context of the Government talking about wide reforms of procedure and practice, many of which required legislation, including avoiding the waste of time and money in unnecessary and entirely formal hearings.

When the Lord Chief Justice—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon—appeared before the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House on 25 April 2018, he said:

“At the heart of what is in contemplation is a change in procedures and practices, some of which will require enabling legislation, followed by rules and practice directions. Of course, the latter will be under judicial control. The question whether all but the most basic procedural hearings will be by telephone or videolink will, in the end, be for the judge to decide, having received representations if necessary.

We hope the legislation that fell at the last election will be back before Parliament fairly soon. Without it, some of the courts and tribunals, or at least some of what we do, will remain trapped in the mid-20th century. At a more prosaic level, modernisation will simply align the courts and tribunals with ways of operating which the outside world, and even Government, have long ago adopted”.

That phraseology was echoed in the opening remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, but does not seem to be greatly furthered by this Bill. What we have here, apart from a few changes of title for one or two judges and justices’ clerks, are some necessary and helpful provisions about the deployment of both judges and staff. Obviously they will have to be looked at in detail. Similarly, some of the issues raised by the noble Baroness will need to be looked at carefully. However, I think that there is generally a fair wind behind the belief that judges’ time and that of staff in the court system can be better used. It is these useful provisions which justify spending a little time on the Bill.

However, there are many other major issues around our courts. Not all of them can be dealt with through legislation, but many require legislative backing. If you talk to members of the judiciary, they will pretty soon mention the condition of the court estate, the working conditions of court staff and the impact all that has on recruitment. The recruitment problem in the senior judiciary is something that the Government will have to consider, and along with that go the issues around the retirement age. More widely, the growing pay gap between criminal practice and commercial practice makes it almost impossible to recruit young people to the criminal Bar for the future. The Times recently reported that 15 City law firms, all American-owned, offer newly qualified solicitors more than £100,000 a year. Against that background, it will be extraordinarily difficult to recruit the young people needed for the future of our courts both in advocacy and on the Bench. The development of problem-solving courts may need some more legislative encouragement.

I turn to a fundamental point which the Prisons and Courts Bill could have been used to improve: the fact that the courts can sentence only according to what is available. Prison is deemed always to be available, but non-custodial sentences are dependent on local services—whether they are in place at all, what their quality is, and what combination of services is required for a really serious non-custodial sentence. All those issues are uncertain. Moreover, commissioning is hopelessly divided. Prisons are commissioned nationally while these other services are commissioned largely on a local basis, so there is a mismatch that gives the courts fewer options for dealing with the offenders before them.

Some of these issues can be dealt with without legislation but some cannot. I hear Ministers such as the noble and learned Lord talk about bringing forward more legislation when parliamentary time allows. I look forward to the period that we are entering in Parliament, with 1,000 statutory instruments and four major Bills to do with exiting the European Union—I wonder how that phrase can be uttered seriously—supposedly coming our way. I believe that a further draft Bill is sitting somewhere in the Ministry of Justice, ready to be brought forward, but I do not see when the parliamentary time will come. It makes me wonder what has happened to the significance of the Ministry of Justice in the pecking order of the Government’s legislative programme. We have a two-year parliamentary Session, half of which we have used up. In that Session, the Ministry of Justice could not have a relatively uncontroversial Bill, which could have done considerable good; it had to be content with a totally shorn and reduced Bill and the vague hope of further measures when parliamentary time allows.

I will make one last point on the problem of parliamentary time. We know that it is a problem, although it does not seem so when you look at the agenda for these current weeks, dealing with the EU Bill; the pressures have not been so great but they will be pretty great in the year ahead. One thing that does not take up much parliamentary time is legislation by consolidation Bills. Law Commission Bills do not take up as much time as legislation that effects change in the law. The courts could be greatly assisted if the Government made more of the now rather neglected procedures of consolidation Bills; they would be greatly assisted if the current work being done on the consolidation of sentencing were achieved and brought forward by the Government in the more limited procedures that can be used when the law is simply being consolidated, not changed. The Government should look at that further and discuss giving it higher priority with the Law Commission. That can be done, at least, to assist the courts, even when parliamentary time is tightly rationed.