I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is a great pleasure to move the Second Reading motion. It is possible that in Westminster at the moment other matters are catching Members’ attention and that the focus of the House has not been sufficiently on the Bill, but I am delighted to have the opportunity to move the motion. The Bill has already been considered in the other place and takes an important step forward for our courts system.
Our judiciary, together with our courts and tribunal service, are rightly regarded as among the finest and most independent in the world. However, the way our courts and tribunals work cannot stand still. They must be able to meet the demands of delivering modern-day justice, meet the needs of the society they serve, and administer justice in the most effective and efficient way.
The justice system must work for all those who use it, as well as for the judges and legal professionals who work in it. That means realising the huge potential of new technology and the law tech revolution to improve people’s experience of and access to the justice system and to open up new routes to justice. It is certainly my determination that the UK should be seen as being at the forefront of adopting new technology, whether in our courts and tribunal system, which is the issue before us today, or more widely, with legal professionals making use of technology. That is one of the reasons that we have instituted a law tech committee, led by Christina Blacklaws of the Law Society, which is designed to take us forward in that area. It is an important part of what we need to do.
My right hon. Friend may be aware that I did an Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship in the law with judges, and my experience of the different courts I went to showed the enormous gap between the commercial courts, which were technologically very superior, and the tribunal system, where we might as well have been using a quill pen. Is this reform going to solve that problem?
Our court reform programme as a whole, which I will come on to, will ensure that we use technology wherever possible. It is right that we embrace that. The Bill is part of the process—it is not all of the process—that will ensure that we modernise. I have cited in the past ways in which artificial intelligence, for example, is being used within the legal profession. An example I have given is a case where AI was used to check a number of contracts to spot potential errors. The rate of success of the AI was somewhat better than that of the experienced lawyers, and if I remember rightly the task was done in 26 seconds rather than 92 minutes. I make that point to illustrate the opportunities in terms of technology and the law.
Innovation and modernisation are vital, but will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to recognise that the single most important strength of our judicial system is the judiciary who work in it and that everything must be done to ensure that we have a broad pipeline of talent so that they continue to be the best in the world?
I very much agree. We have a judicial system that is widely respected around the world for its independence and excellence, and that must long continue. I suspect that my hon. Friend is hinting at the question of how we can get more outstanding candidates to apply to the judiciary. It is right that we should address that challenge. He is right to suggest that this is one of our strengths as a country. It will be important in the years ahead as we leave the European Union that our legal system should continue to be widely respected. I believe that there are great opportunities for the UK to become even stronger as a legal centre, and I am keen for that to happen.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
I will certainly give way to the Chair of the Justice Committee.
The Secretary of State makes an important point about the balance that needs to be struck in these areas. He has given an example of the use of artificial intelligence being appropriate for the checking of documents, and work on dealing with disclosure parameters has already been successfully piloted by the Serious Fraud Office. Would he concede that there is a distinction to be drawn between those essentially transactional but important operations, such as disclosure searches, and the application of human judgment that should be brought to, for example, a charging decision by the SFO? Does he agree that any determination of the facts or issues of a case should clearly be done by a human judge, having heard the arguments, and that their workload could be slimmed down but not replaced by the use of AI?
I agree. I note that my hon. Friends are all quick to make the case for the importance of the skilled human being in these circumstances, and rightly so. We must remember that technology is our servant and not our master.
I make these points because our court reform programme is being undertaken in the context of an embracive technology and the Bill is an aspect of that programme. I will digress no further because it is not essentially a technology-based Bill. However, to follow up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the importance of skilled individuals will continue to be key, and the Bill will ensure that the time of our most skilled individuals—our judges—is deployed as efficiently as possible.
I have to say that innovation and modernisation are not normally things that we associate with our courts. Given the feedback that has already come in on things such as making responses on juries online, does my right hon. Friend agree that this is not only useful to the courts but makes life easier for the public?
Absolutely; that is a key point. Perhaps my hon. Friend has set my Department the challenge of ensuring that people associate the modernisation of technology with the court system. We will know that we have succeeded when he tells us that that is the case. He makes the strong point that this is ultimately about delivering justice. We need to have strong support for the process involved and ensure the satisfaction of those who need to resolve a dispute or to undertake a process. The early signs from our work with online divorce processes are encouraging, and the feedback has been very positive.
I rise as the co-chair of the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group. I am interested in what the Secretary of State is saying about artificial intelligence, but it seems to me that one of the driving forces behind the Bill is not necessarily to improve the administration of justice but to cut costs by pushing workloads down the grades so that staff will be taking on additional work above their current grade without additional remuneration. Surely he should recognise that making savings in the application of justice comes at a cost to staff and to the public’s experience of justice.
I do not think that the hon. Lady is correct in the association that she makes. The reality is that we have to ensure that our resources are deployed as efficiently as possible. That is to the benefit of the system as a whole. I will make the case in more detail as to why the steps taken in the Bill to give authorised staff greater responsibility to undertake some roles that they are currently unable to undertake will be to the benefit of the system as a whole. I make no apology for wanting to find efficiencies within the system, but this is in the context of a £1 billion court reform programme. Those efficiencies can improve the experience of the users of the system, and could also ensure that judges will be able to use their time in the areas that are most useful to them. Indeed, the experience of authorised Courts and Tribunals Service staff will be a more positive one, as they will be able to make a greater contribution to the efficient running of the court system.
Setting aside the whys and wherefores of the Bill, may I invite my right hon. Friend to confirm from the Dispatch Box that the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers between the judiciary and Parliament will be absolutely sacrosanct and at the heart of everything that he, his ministerial colleagues and the Department will do? This is an issue of great concern to many people, irrespective of the Bill, and people always need to have faith that this central pillar of how we are governed in this country will remain intact, protected and preserved.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to respond to that point. The independence of the judiciary is at the heart of our system and a long-standing part of it. It is as important, if not more important, than it has ever been that we reiterate that and support those institutions. As I was saying a moment ago, this is a big part of what our nation is about, and in the years ahead, after we have left the European Union, one of the most important institutions to us will be our independent judiciary. It is a large part of what the UK is about and of how we should project ourselves around the rest of the world.
My right hon. Friend is making a strong case. Perhaps this is for another time, but in the context of having a strong, independent judiciary, will he look again at the rather arbitrary cap of the age of 70 for magistrates? We have many really qualified people who wish to contribute to the independent justice system of this country but who are prevented from doing so simply because of their age.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, although he takes me away a little from the terms of the Bill. I realise that there is a debate about that matter, and there are arguments either way about the current age limit. I have certainly received representations calling for an increase on the current age of 70, and we continue to look closely at those arguments. I believe that there has to be an age limit, and it is a question of judgment as to what it should be. I would be delighted to discuss this with my hon. Friend in the Tea Room if the opportunity to do so should arise.
Building on the point that was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) about independence, may we have an assurance that under the Bill the procedure rule committees that decide what the authorised staff can do will be able to exercise that discretion free from any interference from the centre, so that they can ensure that only those jobs that ought properly to be delegated to those staff are so delegated, and that extraneous considerations such as cost need not be forced upon them when they make their decisions?
My hon. Friend brings me back to the Bill and makes a good point—one which came up on several occasions during the deliberations in the other place about the extent to which we should be prescriptive, or whether powers should be left with the rule committees. I share his instinct that as much as possible should be left to the rule committees, because they are best placed to make such assessments. Indeed, that leads to points made by distinguished retired judges in the other place about not being over-prescriptive. Such matters may be a point of discussion this afternoon or at the Bill’s later stages.
I now turn to the Bill in greater detail. The measures will help to provide the greater flexibility and responsiveness that we need within our court system. That includes freeing up judges’ time from the most routine tasks associated with court cases. The Bill will build on existing powers that already enable staff in most courts and tribunals to be authorised to exercise some of the functions of judges. It will continue to allow appropriately qualified and experienced staff in the civil, family and magistrates courts, the High Court, the Court of Appeal, the Court of Protection and tribunals to be authorised to carry out uncontroversial and straightforward judicial functions under judicial supervision. The Bill will enable those arrangements to be extended for the first time to the Crown court, where court officers can only currently undertake formal and administrative matters. Allowing court and tribunal staff to exercise a wider range of judicial functions will potentially free judges up from undertaking more regular tasks, such as changing the start time of a hearing or changing a pre-trial preparation hearing date, so that they can focus on the more substantive matters of the case.
I welcome the Government’s amendments in the other place to paragraphs 32 and 44 of the schedule, which were secured by my noble Friend Lord Marks, because they ensure that only a judge will have the power to deprive people of their liberty or eject them from their family home. As we give court staff some more powers, it is important that we set down some markers for the types of decisions that should be reserved for trained professional judges.
Indeed, and I will turn to that point in a moment. I hope that the clarification provided by those amendments will be widely welcomed in this House. The passage of this Bill in the other place was characterised by a constructive and co-operative approach from both sides, and I hope that that will continue to be the case—I suspect it will, but we shall see—because the point of those amendments was to provide particular protections. Other issues debated in the other place included suggestions about being more prescriptive. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), it is right that we use the judicially led rule committees in many of those areas, but the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) makes a perfectly fair point.
My right hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. He is talking about the use of judicial time, so will he explain in a bit more detail how the measures will address the problem of the backlog of cases and what effect the Bill is likely to have on improving the current situation?
My hon. Friend raises a good point that comes back to how we ensure that judges’ time is used most effectively, freeing them up from the most routine tasks, such as changing the start time of the hearing, and enabling them to focus on more complex matters. They could then ensure that case preparation and management was resolved proportionately and at an appropriate level. That could also help to improve the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the court tribunal system. There is an opportunity to ensure greater consistency in the current arrangements, and it is right that we strengthen safeguards, as has already been touched upon.
It is important to guarantee the independence of all authorised staff when they are exercising judicial functions. Clause 3 will bring authorised staff under the leadership of senior lawyers. Although we are removing the post of justices’ clerk from the statute, the functions that such clerks undertake will continue to be carried out by heads of legal operations, who have a much greater leadership role across all jurisdictions. The change will ensure that we make all authorised staff ultimately accountable and subject to the direction of the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals.
My right hon. Friend is being generous with his time. The place where these changes can have the most effect is in the tribunal system. I have sat through tribunals that have lasted for days for no good reason, tying up three independent assessors. Surely, it is there that the changes he proposes can have the biggest effect.
My hon. Friend may well be right. The Bill of course relates to courts and tribunals, and it is important to bear in mind the impact on tribunals. Tribunals perhaps do not always attract the attention that they might, but they play a vital role within our justice system. If we can find ways to improve their efficiency, we should all welcome that. That is a key part of what this Bill is about.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the start times of hearings. As he will know, Northallerton magistrates court, which serves many of my constituents, is due to close under these reforms. It is important that people can get to a hearing on time, so will requiring people to travel further to a more distant court be taken into account? Will there be mitigation, such as video links, and will those things be in place and operating before the court closes?
Journey times are taken into account. I am conscious that substantial issues can arise in rural areas, but journey times are considered. As for technology, if I remember correctly, the change at Northallerton magistrates court is conditional upon ensuring that the technology is properly in place. In the context of this Bill, authorised staff will be able to play a bigger role in determining start times, for example, and one hopes that that might enable the process to run as smoothly as possible and ensure that people’s concerns about when they can get to court can be properly considered.
With the distance between courts being a factor not just for claimants and defendants but for witnesses, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that witnesses may sometimes choose not to go to a court if it is too far away, which can cause hearings to be cancelled?
The hon. Gentleman takes me further in the direction of the debate about the court closure plan, but we need to ensure that our resources are deployed as efficiently and effectively as possible. In that context, we have reduced the number of courts, but that money makes a contribution to our overall finances and can be reinvested as part of the court reform programme. We have to take every opportunity to make use of new technology to ensure that the experience of the justice system—the hon. Gentleman rightly highlights that witnesses are important in many cases—is as positive as possible.
I have touched on this already, but safeguards are important. Clearly, the delegation of certain judicial powers to court and tribunal staff needs to be done sensitively and sensibly, and with appropriate safeguards. Independent, judiciary-led procedure rule committees, which govern the rules within courts and tribunals, will determine which functions court staff may exercise in each jurisdiction and what qualifications and experience they will need. Those rules will then be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. All staff authorised to exercise judicial functions will ultimately be accountable to, and subject to, the direction of the Lord Chief Justice or the Senior President of Tribunals.
I am grateful for the valuable insight that Members of the other place brought to debating and scrutinising the measures in the Bill, particularly in relation to the exercise of judicial functions. Many of them drew on their own wealth of judicial experience and expertise in considering the practical issues of implementation.
Concerns were raised in the other place about the safeguards in delegating judicial functions to authorised staff. For example, concerns were raised that certain powers, particularly those that affect the rights and freedoms of citizens, should only ever be directly discharged by the judiciary. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton raised that point.
We have listened to those concerns, and we tabled amendments in the other place that will prevent specific judicial functions from being undertaken by authorised staff, including authorising a person’s committal to prison; in most cases, authorising a person’s arrest; granting certain injunctions; making orders for repossession of residential property, where the orders are contested; and making search orders.
We tabled amendments that will require the procedure rule committees, when making rules to allow authorised staff to exercise judicial functions, to consider whether the rules should include a right to judicial reconsideration of decisions made by such staff. The amendments will also require that, if a procedure rule committee decides against the creation of such a right, the committee will have to inform the Lord Chancellor of its decision and of the reasons for it. This will ensure much greater transparency and accountability.
The measures in the Bill strike the right balance between creating a framework for the delegation of judicial functions to authorised staff, with appropriate safeguards, and giving discretion to procedure rule committees and the senior judiciary to make the arrangements work in practice.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the principle of delegating functions to authorised staff is not, of itself, new? There has been a successful history, particularly in the magistrates courts, of delegating powers to justices’ clerks to carry out a number of functions, which even include such matters as issuing summonses or requesting pre-sentence reports. The principle is in place but, of course, the execution is vital.
My hon. Friend is right, and his experience is a benefit to the House. He knows of what he speaks. This principle is not new, but it is one where we think we can go further, to the benefit of the courts and tribunals system and of the users of that system. He is absolutely right.
A balance needs to be struck on the safeguards, and we believe we have found the right balance. Indeed, the position was strongly supported in the other place by Lord Thomas, the former Lord Chief Justice, and Lord Neuberger, a former President of the Supreme Court, both of whom have a wealth of experience in this area, having chaired procedure rule committees. The combination of Lord Thomas, Lord Neuberger and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham, very distinguished lawyers all, is one that should reassure the House.
Lord Thomas warned on Second Reading against putting too much detail into the Bill:
“Experience has shown that detailed restrictions on procedure are a very real fetter on the administration of justice.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 June 2018; Vol. 791, c. 2039.]
Similarly, Lord Neuberger warned in Committee of placing
“a potential straitjacket on the ability to appoint the appropriate people to make appropriate decisions.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 July 2018; Vol. 792, c. 882.]
Lord Marks also warned against setting too high a bar on the qualifications of court and tribunal staff exercising judicial functions:
“It seems…that the purpose of this part of the legislation is to increase efficiency and…to everybody’s advantage…the speed of decision-making… Having a legislative requirement that all delegated decisions must be taken by qualified lawyers with a minimum experience requirement runs the risk of frustrating this objective.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 October 2018; Vol. 793, c. 414.]
I make those points in anticipation that this may be an issue that we debate further this afternoon, but I think the case is persuasive.
Will the Bill make it easier to set up a new tribunal? I speak in the context of my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking and finance, which has the idea of setting up a financial services tribunal. We are not seeing a level playing field in our courts between banks and small businesses, and we feel such a tribunal may be a solution. Will the Bill make it easier to establish such a tribunal, or will it not have any relevance in that area?
As it stands, and I do not want to encourage my hon. Friend to table amendments, the Bill will not necessarily do that. He has taken a great interest in this issue, and he has been speaking to my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) will pursue the matter with his customary tenacity, and I do not wish to discourage him from doing so, unless he considers that the best way to manifest it is by tabling amendments to the Bill, in which case I would urge him to look elsewhere. I thank him for his intervention.
I draw the House’s attention to additional important safeguards in the Bill. It will provide a guarantee of the independence of staff and their decision making, by applying the statutory independence and immunities that currently apply to justices’ clerks to all authorised staff when exercising judicial functions. A member of staff will be able to exercise judicial functions only once authorised to do so: by the Lord Chief Justice or his nominee, for the courts; or by the Senior President of Tribunals or his delegate, for the tribunals. The Bill includes protections for authorised persons from legal proceedings, costs in legal proceedings and indemnification in respect of anything they do or do not do when exercising judicial functions in good faith.
The Bill also includes measures to enable greater flexibility in the deployment of judges across our family and county courts, the first-tier tribunal and the upper tribunal. For example, it will permit recorders to sit in the upper tribunal, enable senior employment judges to sit in the first-tier tribunal and upper tribunal and enable presidents of the employment tribunals for England, Wales and Scotland to sit in the employment appeal tribunal. This will make best use of the experience and skills of serving judges, and it will give the senior judiciary more flexibility to respond to sudden changes in demand and to manage case backlogs in particular jurisdictions. It will also allow judges to gain experience of different types of cases, which will help with career progression. The Bill also contains provisions relating to the amendment of judicial titles, which will ensure consistency and will help to avoid confusion for court users.
The measures in the Bill are an important part of our wider £1 billion reform programme, which will see our courts and tribunals modernised for the 21st century and our digital age. New online services are already providing new routes to justice for many. For example, of all applications for divorce from unrepresented citizens, more than six out of 10 are now made online, after the new service was launched in May. That amounts to more than 20,000 people in just over six months. It has saved time, cost and effort for them and the system. Reforms in the criminal justice system—from making pleas online for low-level offences, to the piloting of a new digital system to allow the police, Crown Prosecution Service, courts, judiciary and defence to have a single shared view of case information online—are making it work better for everyone, too.
The Bill is an important part of our wider reforms to make our justice system work better for those who use it and those who work in it. It also makes an important first step in the legislation that will underpin our reforms. We will introduce further courts legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows. With the appropriate safeguards in place, the Bill will allow our judiciary, courts and tribunals to operate more flexibly, responsibility and efficiently, and it will ultimately improve people’s experience of justice and put our courts and tribunals on a sound footing for the future. I commend the Bill to the House.
Before I open my speech, I wish to tell the House that today is Lancashire Day. On 27 November 1295, Lancashire sent its first Member of Parliament to attend King Edward I’s model Parliament. The day is well marked and celebrated in Lancashire.
We have been waiting for the arrival of court reform legislation ever since the Government promised in the Queen’s Speech last June a Bill to modernise the court system. One can imagine that expectations were high, but instead we were left disappointed when this wafer-thin Bill, which is both narrowly constrained and obscurely drafted, was finally published. Indeed, most of its provisions were included in the Prisons and Courts Bill that was shelved more than a year ago. That Bill devoted 38 clauses and 13 schedules to the courts and judges, whereas this Bill has just three such clauses followed by a single schedule. As Lord Judge once said of another Government move, it is
“a little too late and…quite a lot too little”.
I intervene only in fairness to the distinguished legal journalist Mr Joshua Rozenberg, for that was his phrase that the noble Lord Judge was quoting.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention.
Rather conveniently, the Government have left out measures that would provide a legislative framework for the increased use of online technology in the courts—their justification for closing so many courts and axing so many court staff. Indeed, we know that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is working at pace on the introduction of online justice services: the civil money claims service was made available to the public in April 2018 and the online divorce application procedure was rolled out nationally in May this year.
Although we would, of course, not seek to refute the fact that modern technology has undoubted benefits, we do have to ensure that it is used carefully and without generating more confusion or distress around the process. It should be about investing to improve our services; it should not be a smokescreen for cuts and closures. As such, it is only right that the effects of digitisation should be researched intensely and costed to ensure the best possible outcome. The Government have not yet confirmed that that has happened and still seem intent on this path, without considering potential concerns.
We are by no means against modernisation. We all want justice to be done in the most cost-effective manner and we all believe that the court system must meet the demands of the 21st century, but there is real concern that the Government are trying to bypass necessary legislative scrutiny in this policy area. We must see a thoroughly researched digitisation programme included in primary legislation, to ensure that written and online processes are undertaken appropriately.
The Bill is a missed opportunity. It should have included clear principles to guide the future of online court procedures and a modernisation programme that could have been fully debated in the House today. Instead, we are told that more legislation will eventually follow to encompass all that. This fragmentary approach—or what has been described by one legal commentator as a “legislative drip-feed”—is deeply unsatisfactory. In May 2018, the National Audit Office published a report that concluded that delays in the introduction of primary legislation have created a significant degree of uncertainty, and that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service “faces a daunting challenge” in delivering the technological and cultural change needed to modernise our courts and tribunals.
Since 2010, the Government have closed literally hundreds of courts and cut thousands of vital staff. Our research suggests that 80% of the courts sold so far have on average raised little more than the average UK house price. That causes concerns about long-term damage to access to justice for civil litigants and, indeed, victims of crime. It will also have an obvious and long-lasting effect on the principle of local justice. The cuts have led to an increase in the number of people forced to represent themselves, a problem further compounded by cuts to legal aid. When unrepresented members of the public turn up to seek justice as litigants in person, it increases costs and delays for everyone. As we have said in the past, it is the most vulnerable who will bear the heaviest costs—young mothers who are unable to find childcare, the elderly who find long journeys difficult, or the disabled. The court closures will prohibitively reduce access.
Will the Government pause their programme of court closures while new technologies and online courts are being tested and wait to see the full findings of their pilots to assess the impact of the changes to our courts system? Will the Lord Chancellor commit today to restarting the programme of court reforms only once the House has finally had an opportunity to fully scrutinise the plans in primary legislation? We have concerns about the Bill as it stands and will not be supporting it today, but we will table amendments in Committee.
As we heard from the Minister, clause 3 delegates judicial functions to authorised staff. This provision must be understood through the lens of a wider austerity agenda that seeks to make significant cuts. These cuts are being made through a process of court closures and through savings on judicial salaries. Other proposals include the relocation of many case-management functions, which, as we know, currently take place in court buildings, with the benefit of on-site judicial supervision.
Our concern is that decisions would move to new off-site service centres. There is an implication that, given that off-site nature, those service centres would be supervised by authorised staff, not judges. That is deeply problematic for us, not least because we would have scenarios in which authorised staff who were not subject to the training, experience, ethos and oaths that a member of the judiciary is, would be performing direct judicial functions while being employed directly by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service.
The issue raises obvious questions about accountability and independence. It is also worth noting concerns that the people involved may be subject to administrative pressures that require the meeting of targets. Given the ideological cuts agenda driving this reform, it is vital that the Bill makes provision for safeguards to protect the standard of decision making by authorised staff, to ensure that the quality of the judicial process and the experience of those who use the court are maintained.
Although we accept that there is some scope for freeing up judges by allowing the most straightforward decisions to be delegated to authorised staff, the intended future limits to any such delegation do not appear to be in the Bill. Instead, they are supposed to be decided by the procedure rule committee. That means that if the Bill passes in its current form, there may be limited external scrutiny of how widely judicial functions are being carried out by people who are not in fact judges, but who work for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service.
I wonder whether the Lord Chancellor is aware of the serious implications for the rule of law and the independence of our judicial decision making. In his opening speech, he touched on the fact that our judicial legal system is considered to be one of the best in the world and is used by many countries, many companies, and many litigants; it makes up about £28 billion-worth of trade. Will that be affected by this downgrading of our judiciary? We believe that such a shift would not meet the expectations held by members of the public about the level of experience and the independence of those making judicial decisions about their rights. Unless limits are placed on those who can be authorised and on what powers can be given to those authorised persons, the Bill could change the very nature of our justice system.
The hon. Lady is right to raise the importance of our judiciary, but I hope that we can reach a consensus on that. Does she not recognise that the Bill has the support of the judiciary? Senior retired judges have spoken in support of it in the other place, and it has been welcomed by the senior judiciary.
I accept that the senior judiciary, some of whom are in the House of Lords, have said that the Bill is a good thing. However, practising lawyers, barristers, solicitors, the Bar Council and the Law Society have said that it is not right, and that the amendments that we will propose should be considered.
There is disagreement in the judicial community about the Bill. [Interruption.] I will just wait until the Lord Chancellor has dealt with his question. The Lord Chancellor and the practitioners here must be aware that, when judges are involved in delegated functions or non-court sitting judgments, they are making judgments on difficult issues and complex matters of law—for example, a case management hearing, or even something such as asking for an adjournment. We do not know, but, at the moment, the Bill suggests that such work could be done by delegated staff.
When someone asks for an adjournment, all kinds of complications could be involved; there could be issues relating to failure of disclosure and so on. According to the Bill as it stands, many issues would be given to a delegated person. That is one reason why we are asking for clarification about who those people will be, what powers they will be given, and, more specifically, what training they will be given. Although some senior members of the judiciary in the other place have said that the Bill is a positive development, the practitioners on the ground, at the moment, do not agree.
I understand what the hon. Lady is saying, and I am not unsympathetic to her point, but, in fairness to the senior judiciary, is it not worth pointing out what was said by the two noble lords who spoke on this matter? Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, the recently retired President of the Supreme Court, counselled that it would be unsatisfactory to reduce the flexibility of these proposals, pointing out that there will be many decisions where requisite experience is required, but others where less experience is necessary. Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the previous Lord Chief Justice, pointed out that the procedure rule committee had practitioners on it who acted independently. He said:
“Experience has shown that detailed restrictions on procedures are a very real fetter on the administration of justice.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 June 2018; Vol. 791, c. 2039.]
Those are very serious counsels by two very distinguished recently retired judges.
I have respect for the senior judiciary, of course, but Parliament should have control over what is being delegated. Taking away judges’ positions and powers is a matter that should be debated in this House. We do not think that it is a matter for the procedure rule committee. We would have a much better idea about what it should be looking at. I think that we will disagree on this issue.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about always listening to eminent legal practitioners in the Lords? I am certain that, quite recently, they have made some mistakes.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Those things do occur.
Let me go back to my earlier point. We believe that limits should be placed on those who can be authorised and on what powers can be given to those authorised persons. The Bill will change the very nature of our judicial system. We want a system that requires transparent and public scrutiny of the scope of future delegated powers by those in this House. That is important and I am surprised that hon. Members who are democratically elected wish to take away that element from the Bill.
We on the Labour Benches are seeking to push for a number of safeguards, the first of which places limits on the delegation of these judicial powers to non-judicial personnel. We intend to press for further oversight and accountability and will be laying down amendments to that effect. It should also be noted that the procedure rule committee has, for many years, undertaken some excellent work, but the delegation of judicial functions cannot be thought of as a simple procedural matter for a rule committee—rather, this is something worthy of secondary legislation in this House.
The reforms that the Government are seeking to introduce through the Bill are designed primarily to cut costs, but, as the Bill stands, there is a risk that the procedure rule committee will be placed in the difficult position of balancing pressures to save costs against maintaining fundamental rights. Amending the Bill so that the procedure rule committee must at least consider the impact on rights would provide important protections both for the rights of the citizen and for the integrity of the committee. We ask the Government to consider that any decision made by someone who has been delegated judicial functions should be open to a full reconsideration or review by a judge. That would guarantee that purely procedural matters could be dealt with more efficiently; if any decisions were deemed contentious, however, they could be reviewed by an experienced and appropriately qualified judge.
We also note that the Government’s late amendment in the other place obliged the procedure rule committee to consider making rules to determine which of the functions performed by authorised staff could be subject to a party’s right of reconsideration by a judge. However, that does not satisfy our concerns. Indeed, it is simply replicating the fundamental problem of the Bill. By placing the obligation on the rule committee, it delegates a legislative duty to the same unaccountable body. Consequently, we will be pushing ahead with our amendment, supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, that proposes a statutory right to judicial reconsideration for any party to a decision by an authorised person. We will also seek to ensure that, in drawing up the rules on reconsideration, the rule committee must consider which functions and decisions will be clearly capable of having a material impact on the substantive rights of the parties. I reiterate that we respectfully disagree with the noble and learned Lords in the other place.
In the Ministry of Justice’s explanatory notes on delegation to staff, it is stated that decisions are unlikely to involve contested matters, yet this is not in the Bill. I remind the Lord Chancellor that case management decisions are essential judicial functions that should not necessarily be delegated. We need to ensure that the decisions that impact on the fairness of the process remain within the remit of the judges.
We also have concerns about the lack of minimum qualification for the authorised staff, particularly where staff are not legally qualified or sufficiently experienced to undertake such functions effectively. The Law Society has suggested that the requirements for qualification, training and experience should be set at three years’ post-qualification, as a solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive for all types of functions, and that that approach should be consistent across all courts and tribunals. I know that the Lord Chancellor has disagreed with this, but I ask him again to agree with the Law Society’s recommendation that a minimum requirement of three years’ post-qualification as a solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive is appropriate for court staff who are to be delegated judicial functions. Will he also provide assurances that provisions in the Bill that allow the delegation of judicial functions will only be considered where staff have appropriate legal qualifications?
A further omission from the Bill—this point has been made by Women’s Aid—is the provision prohibiting the cross-examination of victims of domestic violence that we all looked forward to in last year’s aborted Bill. The stark evidence from groups such as Women’s Aid is that this gap in the law is being used as a further means of control and abuse. We are concerned that such provisions are not now in the Bill. Will the Lord Chancellor tell us when the Government will bring this particular provision to Parliament so that we can deal with it and have a law in our statute book to bar people from cross-examining victims of domestic violence?
Those of us who have campaigned were expecting to see in the Bill some of the things that have been promised, such as the banning of cross-examination. Senior members of the judiciary have themselves called for that measure, but find that current legislation ties their hands. Given that it is not in this Bill, I am certain that Ministers will tell us that it will be in the domestic abuse Bill that will be brought forward. Why will women have to suffer this experience between now and whenever that legislation comes forward? Why is the provision not in this Bill?
I thank my hon. Friend for her work on raising these issues. She is absolutely right. Why is the provision not in this Bill? It was in last year’s Bill, which was aborted because of the general election. It should not be that difficult to put it into a legislative framework.
Let me give an example of something that happened a few months ago in the family courts. Two spouses had an issue about the custody of their child. The female plaintiff had made allegations of domestic violence and sexual abuse against her husband, and it was obvious that the male respondent wanted to cross-examine her. However, the judge had to step in to ask the question on behalf of the male respondent. The case then went to the High Court, where the judge said that it was really not appropriate for members of the judiciary to have to intervene in such cases. The provision should already be on the statute book. We have talked about it for so long and it is not that difficult; it should be on the statute book as soon as possible.
To truly understand the impact of the Bill, we must look at it in the context of the Government’s wider austerity agenda. As it stands, the Bill has the potential to have a profound impact on our justice system. The double delegation of powers that the Government are intent on introducing is a slippery slope that, without proper controls, puts rights at risk. Without further careful scrutiny and additional safeguards, the Bill has the potential to erode long-established legal rights.
The amendments that Labour tabled in the other House were reasonable, sensible and practical, and we really cannot see why the Government cannot adopt and accept them. The Bill has limitations. The Government should listen to us and others who want to improve it, and accept our amendments, which have the support of the Law Society and the Bar Council, so that we protect our judicial system.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor.
In this debate, there is a danger of allowing the ideal to become the enemy of the good and the deliverable. I rather share the regret of the shadow Minister that this is not a larger Bill. I was a great supporter of the Prisons and Courts Bill that was lost prior to the 2017 election, as were all Members on the Treasury Bench today. There were clauses in the Prisons and Courts Bill that I hope will be brought back soon, and the prevention of cross-examination of victims in domestic abuse cases is certainly one of them. It is important not only that that issue be resolved, but that the court-appointed advocates who undertake that work be properly remunerated, and I say that in the context of the ongoing review of legal aid. It will be necessary for those advocates to prepare the cross-examination with particular care, because such cases always require a particular degree of sensitivity.
Removing the ability of the complainant in person to cross-examine is right and proper, but proper means—proportionate with the equality of arms—must be put in place and properly funded to enable the trial to be conducted fairly. I understand the Lord Chancellor’s point that it may not be appropriate to put that in this Bill, but that is not a reason not to bring forward the fully thought through and worked out provisions at the earliest possible opportunity. That is a digression from this worthwhile Bill, which does a number of valuable things, some of which I will mention.
Reference has been made to the debates in the Lords. The Lord Chancellor was right to say that proceedings in the Lords were conducted in a particularly constructive and co-operative spirit. Maybe that was because of the very high percentage of lawyers participating in the debates in the other place. It was a civilised and careful consideration of the Bill, in which I think there was—with respect to the Opposition Front Bench—rather less attempt to politicise some of these provisions than we have heard this afternoon. Many of the measures in the Bill are important and technical reforms that require a statutory basis, and should be welcomed.
I noticed the discussion of changes to judicial titles during the debates in the other place. If I have a slight regret about this Bill, it is one that I share with the noble Lord Mackay of Clashfern about the abolition of the title of justices’ clerk. I can understand why that is proposed, but having practised in the criminal courts for 30-odd years, I have a certain affection for the title, as did Lord Mackay. But that change goes with this Bill, so maybe it is a price that has to be paid for modernity. Perhaps I am being uncharacteristically reactionary in regretting the disappearance of the title of stipendiary magistrate as well. I always thought that “Mr St John Harmsworth, stipendiary magistrate at Marlborough Street” had a greater ring to it than “Mr St John Harmsworth, district judge (magistrates courts)” might ever have done, but I suppose the change did give a certain degree of standardisation.
We have been talking about appropriate levels of qualification. There was a time when justices’ clerks did not have to be legally qualified. I do not say that was a good thing. I remember appearing quite often, as a very young barrister, at Billericay magistrates court in Essex in front of the last non-legally qualified justices’ clerk in the country. He had some sort of grandfathered rights that went back to a time when one could do 10 years as a justices’ clerk and that was regarded as giving one the qualification for appointment. [Interruption.] I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) is much shocked by these things. We had to be terribly robust in those days. I remember that I managed to persuade that justices’ clerk to dismiss a case at half time on the basis that a rice flail was not an offensive weapon per se, because it might have had a legitimate use for flailing rice. Whether that was going to happen on Basildon high street, I am not sure.
We have moved on, and the justices’ clerks are much more professional now, and much more fully integrated, so despite my regret about the loss of the title, the new one does reflect more adequately the role that they now have as legal advisers to a very important part of our system—the lay judiciary. In fact, the Justice Committee heard evidence from representatives of the Magistrates Association today regarding the updating of our previous report on the magistracy. They can play a critical role in this. I think that they broadly welcome the attempts at modernisation of practice and procedure that this Bill will assist.
Like the Chairman of the Justice Committee, I welcome these measures to modernise the process. However, this should not be allowed to distract from what remains a fundamental problem, which is that there are not enough people coming into the judiciary. We need to ensure that they are properly incentivised to do so and rewarded for doing so, because the backlog of cases in the Court of Appeal and elsewhere will not be resolved by these measures alone. Does he agree?
I totally agree. These are useful, practical measures on their own, but they are by no means a solution to the problem. In fact, they are but a very small part of the solution.
I am a bit concerned by some of the Law Society’s suggestions in briefings that some of the broader programme of courts reform is posited on making savings in judicial posts and appointments of about £37.5 million. I hope that the Lord Chancellor—or the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), when she responds to the debate—will be able to set our minds at rest on that. We can make savings by using staff qualified at the appropriate level in what one might term purely interlocutory or procedural matters, but all the decisions on issues of substance in any case—whatever the sum involved or whatever the nature of the charge, in a criminal case—have impacts on the individuals concerned, and they should, in my judgment, be taken only by properly qualified lawyers in an open court process. That is important.
We cannot allow the valuable nature of this Bill to take away from the fact that we need an injection of resource into the criminal justice system. We are seeing a shortfall in appointments to the High Court bench on a regular basis. A number of hon. Members have talked about the integrity of our justice system and the importance of its legal standing, and the quality of the judiciary is key to that. We also see difficulties in making sufficient appointments—full time, at any rate—to the circuit bench. It is easier with recorders, I grant, because they are able to sit part time, but there is a real issue there.
There is also a real issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham knows, about morale. I think that the Lord Chancellor and the Under-Secretary of State understand that and take it on board. I do not expect them to be able to wave a magic wand and solve everything overnight, but it is important to stress these things. Technical changes are useful as far as they go, but they cannot underpin what is essentially a people-based system.
I pay tribute to the excellent work that the hon. Gentleman’s Committee does on these and many other issues. I agree that there were perhaps things in the Prisons and Courts Bill that have not found their way into this Bill. He may agree that we should, none the less, take the opportunity of this Bill to try to sort out the problem of the previous sexual history of victims in rape trials being dragged through the court and used by the defence in an irrelevant way to undermine the complainant’s evidence, sometimes when applications are not even made to introduce this material. Does he agree that this Bill is an opportunity to deal with that problem? We know that this is happening, and it undermines getting rape convictions.
I very much respect the point that the right hon. and learned Lady is making, but I must say to her frankly that I am not convinced that this Bill is the appropriate vehicle for dealing with that issue, although it is a real one, simply because the Bill is very tightly drawn in scope and relates to function. What she wishes to do—I understand why she may wish to do it—would have significant impacts on the operation of the law of evidence, which is a consideration that deserves to be looked at on its own. We probably have a shared view as to what we might want to achieve, but I am not sure that this Bill would be the right one to achieve it.
We do need to look very carefully at the whole approach to the way that previous sexual conduct is dealt with in rape and other sexual offence cases, but we also have to bear in mind—I say this as somebody who prosecuted and defended in these cases—that we should not assume that these issues will never be relevant to the key issue in the case. A balance has to be struck, and very often that is a decision that can only be taken by the trial judge in the light of the submissions made by the parties. I would not want us to restrict the ability of the trial judge to make that decision, because they are best placed to do that. However, the right hon. and learned Lady’s point about failure to follow the procedures and make proper application in advance, and enforcement of those procedures by the judiciary, is an important one that we certainly ought to take forward.
Can I go back to plan B, then? Even if the hon. Gentleman thinks that the Bill is not the right place to address such a considerable evidential problem—and there is controversy around this—would he not, at the very least, like to see tucked in under clause 3, “Functions of staff”, an obligation on staff to record, when an application under section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 is made, what evidence was brought forward and what the result of the application was? There is an absence of evidence about what the courts are actually doing. That enables them to say that there is not a problem, when evidence such as that brought forward by Vera Baird, the police and crime commissioner for Northumbria, says that there is a problem. Does he agree that this Bill could at least get us recording that very important information?
That is a very interesting and constructive point, because we do want to have an evidence base. Again, the only caution I have is this: is it appropriate to do that through a form of statute, or is it better done through placing that requirement in the criminal procedure rules? I am going to talk about the procedure rules in a moment. Either way, there should be a means of capturing that information, and I am very sympathetic to doing so. Perhaps the right hon. and learned Lady and I could talk with others about the best way forward on achieving that, because it should certainly be possible, with modern court technology.
May I take my hon. Friend back to where he left off? Does he agree that the threat to the use of English law around the globe comes about from the efficiency or otherwise of the judges, and that the more that judges are unable to be efficient in giving a judgment, the more there is a threat to the use of English law? Does he agree that this Bill goes a long way towards trying to sort that out?
Yes, I do. That is very important, and that is why it is not surprising that experienced former judges have expressed a view on this. We have referred to the former President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, and the immediate past Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. I note also the observations of Lord Thomas’s predecessor, the noble Lord Judge. They all supported the thrust of this Bill in enabling more flexible deployment of judges within tribunals and the assignment of procedural matters to non-judicial court staff. They also warned about not unduly fettering the ability of the court procedure rule committees, which have on them practitioner representatives who are able to set matters in the light of their practical experience. That is absolutely right, and it in no way contradicts the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham about the need to have the requisite number of top-class members of the judiciary. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) that this is a sensible and proportionate Bill.
I want to touch on a couple of other points that relate to the issues legitimately raised by both the Law Society and the Bar Council. It is possible to meet their concerns in a proportionate way. I think it is fair to say that the Bar Council and the Law Society’s main issue, in terms of the scope of the Bill, has been the relationship to authorised staff. They make a fair point about the underlying issue of the courts modernisation programme, which I will touch on later. There was an acceptance in the other place that some types of procedure and hearing do not require a legally qualified person to deal with them.
However, we have to ensure that when the procedure committee draws up the rules around this—I welcomed the Government’s amendment, which gives greater clarity about how that will operate and makes it easier to achieve—it is not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham said, placed in the invidious situation of trading off access to rights against costs. I have sympathy, therefore, for what underpinned the concern raised by the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), though I do not advocate the same solution. That balance cannot be allowed to be swayed unduly in terms of the transactional or the financial.
The right of reconsideration is worthy of consideration, and I hope the Government will look seriously at it. It is a question of the appropriate level at which to pitch that. Some of the matters that it is proposed be delegated are almost entirely procedural in nature. We should distinguish between delegating to a court official a procedural matter, such as granting an extension in time, which many of us probably think is not the sort of thing where the fundamental rights of a party are so affected that it requires reconsideration, and something that goes to the issue of the case, such as a summary judgment. The way forward is to give the rules committees the ability to reflect those distinctions, rather than to try to spell things out too much in statute.
It has been suggested that there should be a form of benchmark against which the rules and procedures operations are carried out. That may be worthy of consideration by Ministers, and it may be discussed in Committee. I would not want to tie people’s hands, but we could have some form of benchmark against which that is done, without falling into the trap that Lord Thomas, Lord Judge and Lord Neuberger counselled against, of overly restricting, over-legislating and tying the hands of the judges.
I take issue with the Opposition on this point. It is not right or desirable for politicians—who, by their nature in our system, are partisan animals—to seek to constrain too much the operation of the rules or procedure of the desirably and deliberately independent courts. We have to be careful about how we achieve a balance. Our job is to set the policy and legislative framework within which the courts operate, but if we get too far into the detail, we run the risk of trespassing on judicial independence, and also on efficiency.
There are good aspects to the Bill that I hope the House will take forward. I intervened on the hon. Member for Bolton South East to point out that it was Mr Joshua Rozenberg, the well-known journalist, who coined the phrase
“it is a little too late and quite a lot too little.”
In fact, to be wholly accurate, it was Lord Marks, a Liberal Democrat shadow Minister, who quoted it in the other place. It is a very good phrase, but it is harsh on the Bill. The Bill does good work within the scope that it seeks, but that does not mean we should not support the Lord Chancellor and his Ministers when they seek, as I am sure they will, to find the appropriate legislative time to bring forward measures on a number of other aspects of the former Prisons and Courts Bill, which was lost in the Dissolution.
The right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and I have discussed some matters of criminal and family law in domestic violence cases that it is important for us to tie up. I stress strongly that much of these reform proposals stem from the excellent reports of Lord Justice Briggs and Lord Justice Leveson. Their reports were seminal in suggesting a modernising way forward, but taking that way forward requires the underpinning of statute. I urge the Lord Chancellor, who has been very patient in listening to us all, to make it a priority to persuade the business managers to find time for the legislative vehicle that will enable the modernisation of the court procedure rules on all civil matters to be brought forward. The Leveson proposals could have statutory underpinning in the same Bill. There is a real sense of uncertainty, referred to by the Law Society and the Bar Council, about the statutory underpinning for this ambitious courts programme. That was also picked up by the National Audit Office in its inquiry.
I welcome the Bill, and I support it as a valuable and worthwhile step forward, but—I think the Lord Chancellor would be the first to accept this—it is only one part of the programme that we need to deliver. We ought to get the Bill through the House as swiftly as possible and then move on to the next step. I note that Second Reading in the Lords lasted just under two hours, which shows that we can be both erudite and remarkably brief, which is perhaps an improvement on some debates we have here.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Chair of the Justice Committee, who gave us an awful lot to think about. I agree with him that there is a great deal in the Bill that is good and that I would not wish to speak against, but I want to draw attention to a couple of its aspects about which I have concerns. As a non-lawyer, I am happy to be corrected if I have got something wrong and to be reassured by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), when she makes her concluding remarks. I wish to raise a couple of areas of concern, particularly in relation to the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in the legal process, but also about the context in which these proposals are being made.
There is a sign on a wall near my constituency office in Bristol that says:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I am sure all Members will know that those are the words of Dr Martin Luther King, and they are as relevant now as they were when he first wrote them in his letter from Birmingham jail in 1963. I quote them because a reduction in justice for any of us is a reduction in justice for all of us. When a court closes, as is happening in many of our towns and cities, making it harder for witnesses to travel to give evidence and for members of the public to hear court proceedings; when someone gets inadequate advice from someone supposedly giving them legal advice; or when the powers of the court to act fairly and impartially are compromised anywhere in our system, it is a potential threat to justice for all of us. I know that the Lord Chancellor and the Minister would not wish to do that, so I pose my questions to ask whether we are sure we are doing everything we can to maintain the spirit of that quote.
We may be the victim of a crime or the witness to a crime. We may be accused of a crime, or we may know someone who is wrongly accused. We may have a constituent who needs our help. For all those things, we need our courts to work properly. I am truly concerned about the Bill. While it has good points, there are a couple of places where there are questions to ask.
First, I am concerned that these changes are being pushed through Parliament at a time when Members are understandably focused on other matters and when, as far as I know—the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst may correct me if I am wrong—there has not been prelegislative scrutiny. I would like to know when there will be some form of legislative scrutiny by the Justice Committee. There are provisions in the Bill that provide for regulations to be made through statutory instruments. That has been attended to in the other place, but those instruments provide for very limited scrutiny. Again, this is in a context where we will be overwhelmed by Brexit-related statutory instruments in the coming months and years.
Then there is the background of cuts to legal aid. I recognise that that is outwith the scope of the Bill, but it has an impact on the effect of the Bill. The wider context is that the justice system is under great strain. If the Lord Chancellor or the Minister has read the book “The Secret Barrister”, they will know the context I am referring to. I am also alluding particularly to refugees and asylum seekers, because I am concerned that they may be the people for whom the supposedly straightforward administrative advice that the Lord Chancellor mentioned may turn out to be more complicated and have a more far-reaching impact.
I need more reassurance from the Minister that there will not be an impact on immigration claims and appeals cases, which are sometimes already affected by perhaps less than great legal advice or legal aid cuts, and that the system will not be put under further pressure. That would mean that people who genuinely need our help, and who are entitled to sanctuary, could be failed and may be returned to places where they would face further danger. I would like some reassurance or clarification on that from the Minister, or perhaps an undertaking to look at it during the Bill’s further stages.
On legal qualifications, I refer hon. Members and the Minister to the comments of the noble and learned Baroness Butler-Sloss in the debate on the Bill in the other place. She said:
“My Lords, as a former judge of the family court, I wonder in what circumstances such judges—district judges, circuit judges or even possibly High Court judges—might need the advice of those who were not themselves qualified lawyers. I find that difficult. I see no difficulty with justices of the peace—that is perfectly obvious—but at the moment I cannot see how any family court judge, at any level, should be advised on legal issues by someone who is not legally qualified.”
“I would be grateful to the noble and learned Lord for explaining what he sees this applying to, and in what circumstances.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 October 2018; Vol. 793, c. 416.]
It would be helpful if the Minister could give this Opposition Member, as well as others who may be more knowledgeable than me and certainly the non-lawyers in this place, an idea of the answer to the questions that the noble and learned Baroness asked.
When our Front Bencher in the other place withdrew the Labour amendment on qualifications, she did so reluctantly. I note that she said she was withdrawing it with “a somewhat heavy heart”. I am therefore particularly concerned that the concerns she raised in the other place may not yet have been dealt with adequately. I would like some reassurance from the Minister on that.
As I have said, I am concerned, drawing on my casework as an MP, about the potential impact on appeals in immigration and asylum cases, which may be put under strain if there is any question of administrative information being given by people who are not legally qualified. Those affected are multiply vulnerable: they are usually traumatised, they may have little English, and with the best will in the world, they may not be capable of understanding the legal advice or administrative information that they are given. This may seem a tiny, nit-picking and technical point—and perhaps I have got it wrong—but I really think it is worth checking that we have not unwittingly put asylum seekers and refugees in a position where administrative advice may have a more far-reaching consequence than I am sure the Lord Chancellor intends.
On cost cutting, in Bristol we have a well-appointed court in the centre of the city, but I understand from colleagues who represent towns and smaller cities that they have experienced court and tribunal closures, resulting in increased journey times for victims and witnesses and reduced access to visible justice. The Law Society and others have already expressed great concerns about that, and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned the National Audit Office in that context.
Does the Minister recognise the concerns of those who see this Bill in the round—in the context of the wider cuts to court staff and court closures—about it being a move towards justice being delivered at a reduced rate? As I said, there are good things in the Bill. What is at issue is not that, but its impact and how it fits into the wider context.
The Bill does not in my view satisfactorily address the context of the cost cutting programme in courts, which is undermining access to justice and is being pushed through without proper scrutiny. I urge the Minister, if she has not already done so, to add “The Secret Barrister” to her Christmas reading list. I have not finished it, truth be told, but I will undertake to finish it if she will, because that may be useful for all of us. I am concerned that the Bill could be an attempt, in places, to cut corners and weaken safeguards, and I am concerned about delegating powers to possibly underqualified court staff without adequate training. I urge the Minister to consider Opposition Front-Bench amendments to that effect.
I urge the Government and the Minister to remember what I said at the start. I repeat those words:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I would like the Minister’s reassurance that she is truly convinced that this Bill does not, even in the smallest way, represent any threat to justice.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), not least because, like her, I am not a lawyer. I think the more non-lawyers who speak in this debate, the better it will be, because we bring common sense to such a debate, which I am afraid from time to time legally qualified Members do not.
I was, however, completely entranced by the description of justices’ clerks given by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). I thought that my opportunity had now come, because these were non-legally qualified people who had a role to play, and I thought, “This is an opportunity for me when I finish here”. Sadly, however, even that has been taken away from me.
If I may, I will just pick up on one of the things that the hon. Member for Bristol West mentioned when she talked about other things distracting us from our examination of this area. I think this is just the sort of Bill that we need to concentrate on. I do not think we should be distracted by other things, because the Bill is crucial to the management of justice and of our courts.
I just wish to clarify my point about Members being distracted. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is exactly the sort of Bill we should be focusing on, but my concern is that Members are distracted by the wider constitutional impact of the word beginning with B, which I will not mention.
I am sure some Members are distracted by that, but I am incredibly pleased that neither she nor I are, and that we are going to concentrate on the Bill in a very big way.
I mentioned in an intervention on the Lord Chancellor that I was actually the first Member of Parliament to go on the Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship in law. It was a particularly enlightening experience. I cannot remember the number of days that I was allocated, but I doubled the number of days I spent on it, because I spent most of the time sitting alongside judges, on the bench, listening to what they did. The number of different courts I saw was tremendous—I remember starting in the commercial courts, which I will come back to in a little while. They represented such a technological advance on all the other courts I sat in on, and that was a really good thing to see.
To go back to a point I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, the first thing that came out of that experience of sitting alongside judges was an absolute admiration for their integrity and for what they did and how they did it. The second thing was an understanding of how overworked they are. As non-lawyers, we perhaps tend to think of judges just turning up, sitting and listening to the case, and giving judgment, but the amount of preparation that goes into hearings is phenomenal. That was a good thing to see and experience, and it applied whether it was the bankruptcy court or the Court of Appeal, in which I sat on two occasions.
The point I made to my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor earlier was about the speed of justice. I am not a great advocate of speed in itself, but I think there is a threat to English law: not Brexit, but the ability of our courts to dispense justice on a timely basis. When I sat in with judges, I saw that they were often so preoccupied with the minor administrative elements of their role they did not have time to dispense justice in what I would consider a timely manner. That was the case whether I was sitting in a higher court or, in particular, in a tribunal—I will come on to tribunals in a moment. Efficiency in making judgments and delivering English justice is one of the hallmarks of the justice system and one that we lose at our peril. If that point alone is made, it is made well.
One issue I would like to raise, which may at first not seem immediately applicable to the Bill, is the age of judges. I believe it does apply to the Bill, because consideration is being given to other people taking on judicial functions. The point about age has also been raised in relation to the magistracy, and it also applies to lords justices and others. When the Lord Chief Justice appeared before the Justice Committee last week, we asked him about the age of justices and he explained that there were mechanisms by which they could be extended beyond the age of 70 in certain capacities. However, that is an artificial cut-off—if we were stopped from being MPs at 70, I think there would be shouts of horror. Some of us—I am nowhere near that age now—would consider that we were being cut off in the prime of our life. The same is the case with judges. They have acquired a tremendous amount of experience, principally as barristers. They have had a lot of judicial experience, and they are just coming to the point where they can use that experience in the best possible way. I therefore think it is necessary to look at extending the age at which judges retire to beyond 70. To be able to do that, we must look at the courts in a holistic way.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The coalition Government, as I am sure he will know, increased the age at which members of the public could sit as jurors to 75. It seems quite bizarre that a lay person who is fit, healthy and willing to serve can sit as a juror up to the age of 75, but people of that age cannot sit as a judge of the High Court, the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court—unlike in the United States, where they can go on for a considerable time.
I am not sure I would like to follow the experience of the United States in this matter, but my hon. Friend makes an absolutely first-class point. There needs to be a consistent approach to the age at which we can use people or force them to retire.
There is a lot to be said for the system in the Bill that would enable people to undertake some activities undertaken by judges. As an aside, I said that I am a non-lawyer, but I am currently seeking to extend my ability to undertake arbitration—I hope that that does not cut across or invalidate what I am saying. Such an ability is an important element of the mix that needs to be taken into account when we are looking at the judicial system as a whole.
When I was involved in sitting with judges for the fellowship, I was very much aware of the difference between courts in digitalisation and technology. In the commercial court, the system was utterly brilliant. I sat with a judge who was listening to an English law case in Portuguese. The transcript of the English translation appeared almost instantaneously on his laptop on his desk in front of him. The use of technology to get information out was absolutely fantastic. As I said to the Lord Chancellor, however, employment tribunals might as well have still been using the quill pen, they were so antiquated—not the judgments being made, but how the courts were organised and delivered justice. If we want access to justice, it is absolutely essential that the process of digitalisation in courts is seen through to the end. It materially influences access to justice.
When I sat in the Court of Appeal, prisoners appealed their sentences via video link. It was clearly not a good idea to bring the prisoners into court, so video links were used all the time to great effect, enabling judgments to be made. There were some discrepancies. For example, it took some time to get the focus right for some prisoners. I understand that that was due to the camera equipment, rather than the features of the prisoners.
When I started my work as chairman of the all-party group on alternative dispute resolution, I had the opportunity to speak to Lord Briggs about his proposals for the justice system as a whole. The Bill moves us closer towards what Lord Briggs was after, but it does not take us all the way to it. For example, the digitisation of divorce is welcome, but his proposal for online courts is very valuable. I know that that is controversial among lawyers, but it is important to enabling both the delivery of justice and access to justice. I would like that process to be extended beyond the scope of the Bill, so that we can receive and transmit electronic evidence in the handling of individual court cases. Anything that can move the legal profession into the 21st century is to be welcomed.
If I may, I would like to give a plug to the Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship. Having been the first to go on it, I recommend that hon. Members absolutely do so. The experience of sitting alongside judges is absolutely first class. My first appearance in court—if I can put it that way—was in a commercial court. I went to the court with the judge. We were just about to go through the door and I said, “I shall just go and sit at the back of the court.” He said, “What do you mean? You’re sitting up next to me in the court.” It was a great shock to me—
A great shock to the defendant.
It was a great shock to the barristers, particularly when I sat in the planning court and the barrister was well known to me. We played a little trick on him by coming in through different doors so that he was unaware of who we were.
The point of all that is that it is a very valuable training scheme. The more that people can go on it, the more there will be an understanding of the issues raised in the Bill and of the need to bring the courts into the 21st century.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), and I am very pleased to speak on Second Reading of the Bill, which is part of a wider programme of reforms to our judicial system. In 2016, there was a joint statement about the reform programme from the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals saying that the reforms would combine
“our respected traditions with the enabling power of technology. The vision is to modernise and upgrade our justice system so that it works even better for everyone, from judges and legal professionals, to witnesses, litigants and the vulnerable victims of crime. When they have to engage with the system, we want everyone to have available to them the finest justice system in the world.”
That is absolutely right. That is what we want from these reforms; we want a system that works for everybody and is more accessible to everybody.
I also want to bring the attention of the House to what Susan Acland-Hood, the chief executive of the Courts and Tribunals Service said about this:
“Our ambitious programme of court reform aims to bring new technology and modern ways of working to what is—and will remain—the best justice system in the world.”
That is absolutely right. We want to make our fantastic and world-renowned justice system the best in the world. She also says:
“We know our systems and processes haven’t always kept pace with the rapid technological developments…around us.”
That is the key point that is so important for our courts, our tribunal services and our justice system. They very much need to remain relevant, in time and in touch with technological change and it is important that we have that as we move forward.
The Bill is about delivering on those significant reforms to the Courts and Tribunals Service. It includes proposals to develop high-quality digital services, which are so important as we move towards a more digitised age. People are now so used to using digital technologies.
I hope that the introduction of new technology will mean speeding up casework, because for far too long there has been a large gap before something comes to court. I do not think that that is fair in terms of justice or for the individual concerned. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me?
I absolutely agree. Like many Members, I have had a number of constituents come to me to raise concerns about the timeliness of hearings, going to court and how long it takes to get to court. That is so important. I am pleased that it is one of the key things that will, I hope, be addressed by the Bill, which will speed up that process so that we see a much more efficient system of getting into court and getting through the court process.
Unfortunately, at the moment, much of the court system is clunky and bureaucratic. Many of the processes used are over-complex and labour intensive. Another word we might use is counterintuitive, as some of the processes are not entirely logical. We need to reform the process to make it more effective and more efficient, and to deliver more for my constituents, those of the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) and constituents across the country. We need to ensure that we have a system that remains relevant.
Other things will particularly be improved through digitisation. The public can now apply for non-contested divorces, respond to a jury summons, track social security appeals and issue a response to civil money claims online. The move towards more of these services being offered online is really important, and it is positive to see encouraging and positive feedback from the public about the new services that have been introduced and the work that has been done to encourage more digitisation.
The Bill will continue to build on the reforms, making better use of the skills and experiences of the cohort of judges in our criminal and judicial system. It is important that judges’ time is used to the most advantage and the greatest effect and that we direct judges to the most serious cases, where their expertise can be used to best advantage. We should be ensuring that they are freed from some of the more mundane and routine tasks that can be done by lower-level staff who will be appropriately qualified and experienced to deal with such matters. Senior judges should not be dealing with such issues.
The provisions in the Bill will move forward the process of building efficiency and effectiveness and speed up the turnover of cases, which, as I have already said, is extremely welcome to constituents up and down the country, particularly my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South. On a number of occasions, I have had to write to the chief executive of the Courts and Tribunals Service and Ministers in the Department about speeding up some of these cases and trying to get some of them to court in a timely way. I know that Members across the House have issues with that.
The Bill is very much about how we can improve the judicial system not just for the people who use it but for the people working in it, making it a much more effective system for judges and all the other very qualified staff who work in it. I am particularly pleased to see that Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham have been announced as the first two new locations for the Courts and Tribunals Service centres. It is fantastic to see that my own area will benefit from greatly improved services, with faster services for our constituents and better guidance to help the public and professionals understand and use the court process much more effectively. That is very important; the court process needs to be accessible to all our constituents. It should not just be for those who are well informed on these matters.
I am pleased that Stoke-on-Trent will be one of the first two locations. The Courts and Tribunals Service centres have completed the process of organisational design and job design and are commencing the internal selection process for staff to take up roles in the two projects. I want to go into a bit more detail about what that will entail. It will reshape how the Courts and Tribunals Service works, ensuring that it is a much more effective organisation in providing services that our constituents need. Our courts and tribunals will be much more focused on supporting trials and hearings, and it is so important that they do that. The roles of clerks will change. They will be able to support judges and users of courts in more ways, such as by using technology to support their core role. The courts and tribunals will also have listing officers where they do now and staff to support judges, including with more delegated powers, where that is agreed by the judiciary.
This is about making our judicial system and the Courts and Tribunals Service much easier, more accessible and more transparent, and reducing many of the complexities that have unfortunately existed in the judicial system. It is also about cutting down on some bureaucratic and administrative processes, and moving to a much more efficient service, ensuring that we have a service that is providing a first port of call for members of the public who want information on their cases. It is so important for constituents to be able to access information about cases and services as easily as possible.
The first two Courts and Tribunals Service centres, which will begin by supporting our first reformed services—divorce, probate, the single justice service, and social security and child support—will open in Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham in January 2019. I very much look forward to that and hope that this will move forward easily now. Reforms will involve moving the location of some services in the future. The report talks about the importance of buildings and about the Courts and Tribunals Service learning lessons where we are selling off property or where property is changing, so that we take on board the views of the communities involved. Many of these buildings are important assets to their communities. Many of them are historic buildings in the heart of their communities, and I want to make Members aware of what has been experienced in Stoke-on-Trent.
The magistrates court in Fenton in my constituency was one of 93 courts in England and Wales that were identified for closure and it subsequently did close, in 2012, as part of measures to save about £41 million. As Members can imagine, that provoked a significant outcry in the community. The magistrates court was based in the former town hall in that community, which is a fantastic Victorian building. I am pleased that campaigners have been able to save the building for community use. There are significant lessons to be learned on how we dispose of these buildings and how we can bring them into effective community use. That building, which was used for many, many years as the magistrates court, is now a real hub for the community, providing spaces for local businesses and community groups, a café and an art gallery. These fantastic facilities have been brought back into use for the community because things have been done in the right way. The Department has to be congratulated, following the significant pressure that was put on it by the community, on the fact that that site is now back with the community.
Justin, a descendant of William Meath Baker, the person who built Fenton town hall, bought the town hall and is gradually restoring that building and bringing it back into use for the community. Once fully completed and restored, that building, which was built in 1888, will be a fantastic part of the community, and I hope it will continue to be used for many decades to come by the community. As we move forward with these reforms—with the digitisation and the moving of courts to different locations—it is important to take account of the places we have had previously and the changes that were made. It would be great to see former courts up and down the land that are no longer needed, because of the efficiencies that have been made, being used for community value and in productive ways for our communities.
I wish to finish by giving a few statistics about what this process will mean for the Courts and Tribunals Service. More than £1 billion will be invested in transforming the system, which will include 21st-century technology, online services and digital working, while making sure that our justice system remains the most accessible justice system possible for constituents such as mine. There is a real opportunity to make the system much more accessible to our constituents. The measures in the Bill will enable direct financial benefits of around £6 million per annum and enable wider court reforms, which will save around £200 million per annum once fully implemented. Over 65,000 people have used the pilots of new courts and tribunal services and received straightforward digital access to courts for the first time. Those statistics demonstrate the benefits of the Bill. That is why I am very pleased to support it today.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I start by acknowledging some of the excellent contributions from Members across the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) passionately made a plea, and a very important point, on the impact on some of the most deprived and how we should always mitigate that. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the much respected Chair of the Justice Committee, made a very important point about the right to reconsideration, which I will come on to in greater depth.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because it gives me the chance to do justice to his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), and to remind the House of my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which I should have done before. The hon. Lady and I had a minor debate about whether Lord Judge or Lord Marks quoted Joshua Rozenberg. We have now worked out between us that Lord Marks quoted him in a debate on this Bill, but that Lord Judge quoted him in a debate on another occasion—so they both quoted him, and he has been quoted twice here.
I am grateful to the Chair of the Justice Committee; he has saved me some time, because my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) asked me to clarify that matter in my speech.
I also acknowledge the contribution from the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who rightly made the point about a consistency in approach across the judiciary and did so very well. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) spoke passionately about making our justice system the best in the world—which it already is, although we can improve it through further and better technology.
When the Government brought the Prisons and Courts Bill to the House, they declared an intention to reform our courts and judicial system. When that Bill fell because of the Prime Minister’s ill-fated decision to call a general election, they restated their intention for reform and brought this Bill before us. In opening the debate today, the Lord Chancellor spoke about court reform, new and innovative technology, and sweeping modernisation, yet the content of the Bill does not match his words. It is devoid of any substantial change that will encourage greater access to justice, and it wilfully omits—and even seeks to avoid—debate on the huge, pressing concerns present in our courts system. When seen in the wider context of the Government’s austerity agenda and cuts to the justice system, it seems to be less about reform and more about squeezing as much money as possible from the courts.
Even at first glance, this is a minimal, even empty, Bill—a view that is vindicated upon reading it in more detail. It contains provisions to extend the redeployment of judges, to rename some of the judiciary and to allow an increased use of the delegation of judicial functions to non-judicial staff. While all those measures have value, in no way do they capture all that is needed to reform our courts and judiciary. They are measures taken by a Government intent on introducing a drip-feed of legislation in the absence of their parliamentary majority, avoiding scrutiny. Not only have they omitted anything substantial, but they have drafted the Bill to avoid some of the most pressing issues facing the justice system. It makes no mention of measures to address legal aid cuts, court closures, judicial vacancies or the protection of domestic abuse victims. It is here where the real failures of reform lie.
On legal aid cuts, access to justice has been decimated. Spending has fallen by one third from £2.5 billion to £1.6 billion per year, and the number of civil legal aid cases has fallen from more than 500,000 in the year to April 2013 to just under 150,000 in the year to April 2017. Vulnerable people are being left unable to defend themselves in areas as fundamental as housing, employment, immigration and welfare benefits, and unnecessary costs are being created for the taxpayer as cases are going to court that could have been resolved earlier. Further costs for the public purse arising from cuts are causing issues such as poor health, homelessness and debt. When people lack the money or knowledge to enforce their rights, those rights are worth nothing more than the paper they are written on, yet the Bill fails to mention legal aid or the urgent need to reverse the changes imposed by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
On court closures, the Bill is silent and has closed down discussion on this equally vital issue for people’s access to justice. It fails to address the significant £1 billion-plus courts reform programme that is being pushed through, as the Lord Chancellor stated earlier—but without any proper scrutiny. Since 2010, the courts and tribunals estate has changed significantly, with hundreds of courts having been closed in the name of austerity, and that has hampered people’s ability to access justice.
Many claimants and defendants must now travel miles to access justice and uphold their rights, the Government having closed their local courts, but many lack either the transport or the finances needed to do so and as a result have lost what should be their guaranteed right to justice. The Government argue that their modernisation programme reduces the need for an expansive courts estate, but we are clear that courts reform should increase access to justice, not ignore its erosion, and that any modernisation of our courts system must not be a smokescreen for cuts and closures that will cause long-term damage to access to justice.
As mentioned earlier, the Bill should have done much more to address the appalling situation of victims of domestic violence being subjected to questioning by those who assaulted them. Women’s Aid found that almost one in four of survey respondents had been cross-examined in this way. That unacceptable situation puts the victims of abuse through yet more torment and hardship, for no conceivable reason. It is cruel and barbaric. Measures to prevent it from happening and protect victims are supported by campaign groups on women’s rights and domestic violence, including Women’s Aid, but yet again such measures are absent from the Bill, despite having been in the Prisons and Courts Bill. There is no excuse for the Government’s not having included such measures in the Bill: that should shame them. I hope they can explain when such measures will be introduced to rectify the situation.
Where there is change, it is change that the Government have failed to impose with sufficient protection, and it is here that we will seek to amend the Bill. On a point of clarification, I should say that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East did not mean to say earlier that we opposed the Bill: we will be abstaining today and tabling amendments in Committee. We are determined to deliver change and reform to the courts and judiciary, even if through the Government’s piecemeal efforts, but we are equally determined that it not be done at the expense of the judiciary, legal protections or judicial independence.
As the Government seek to delegate judicial functions to non-judicial staff, they must be careful of their use; they must not overuse non-judicial staff or use them as substitute judges to fill the significant number of judicial vacancies, which have risen to critical levels on their watch. Judges must absolutely remain at the top of their hierarchy in the courts, and their position must not be undermined by non-judicial staff assuming more and more of their functions. Granting further powers to non-judicial staff not only risks undermining the judiciary, but runs the even more dangerous risk of delegating serious judicial functions to unqualified staff.
It is important for the Bill to contain provisions that prevent excessive delegation, protect the reputation of the judiciary, and protect claimants, prosecutors and defendants from unqualified decisions. The Government ceded amendments to impose in primary legislation some restrictions on the type of judicial functions that authorised staff can discharge, but we need a strong further commitment; I hope that the Lord Chancellor and the Minister will strengthen their stance in that regard.
There are also insufficient protections for the expertise of our judiciary. Those would be provided through the imposition of a minimum standard on staff to whom decisions are delegated. The Government argue that authorised staff will not be making substantial decisions, but in his review of efficiency in criminal proceedings Sir Brian Leveson states that even non-contested elements of cases require experience, and Lord Briggs has said in his report that even if authorised staff are legally trained and qualified, they will not benefit from years of judicial experience in delivering the quality of services that is currently delivered by judges.
It is therefore extremely important that the decisions being delegated to authorised staff are appropriate to their experience and qualifications, as the prospect of non-qualified, inexperienced staff carrying out judicial functions is all too real and worrisome. When such staff make decisions, it is also vital for those decisions to be subject to a statutory right to judicial reconsideration.
The Government state in their factsheet that the functions and responsibilities delegated to authorised staff will be uncontested, but it is easy to see how that could shift in the future to authorised staff making contested decisions, particularly in the absence of a clear definition of what delegation can be given. Justice has said that some of the functions anticipated for authorised staff, such as extending time for service and taking pleas, may well give rise to contested matters and have consequences for cases. It is therefore essential for the Government to impose a statutory right to reconsideration for decisions taken by authorised staff—a view supported by the Bar Council. In not imposing such measures when the public have a real and reasonable expectation that significant contested decisions in a court will be made by a judge—or, if not, that there will at least be a right of appeal or review before a judge—the Government are also playing fast and loose with the public’s trust in the judiciary and the rule of law.
The Government may claim that the procedure rule committees could and would impose similar safeguards in any rules that they produce, but that is simply not good enough, given that their amendments fail to offer sufficient guarantees of a right of review. We think that, and so does the Bar Council, which believes that a further amendment is necessary to abate its concern that the Government could exert pressure on the PRCs to reduce the right of reconsideration to increase the turnover of cases and clear the backlog. We are adamant that any backlog must not be cleared through the removal of a fundamental legal right of reconsideration.
Let me end by confirming that we will abstain today, but look forward to the Government’s seriously considering our amendments in Committee. The Lord Chancellor opened the debate in a spirit of collaboration. I assure him that all our amendments are very reasonable, and I am sure that he is an amiable chap who will view them in the same light. If the Government want to deliver a worthwhile Bill, they must listen to these arguments, not throw them aside. They must consider them in Committee before returning the Bill to the House.
It gives me great pleasure to respond to the debate on this Bill, which, as many have said, is a small but important step in our court reform programme. As the Lord Chancellor set out in his speech, our courts together with our judiciary are respected throughout the world, but our courts and tribunals need to move with the times, and we have heard some excellent points today on how this Bill will improve our efficiency. I wish to respond to some of them.
As the excellent Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), said, the Bill’s measures are important technical reforms that require a statutory base. He highlighted the importance of the judicial process in general—the importance of each case to the individual whose case it is. These are important points that the Ministry of Justice must always bear in mind.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) was right to point out, as I have, that this is but one part of a suite of measures of court reform. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) for saying there is a great deal that is good in this Bill, and she asked a number of questions that I am happy to answer. She said it is important that there be no reduction in justice over all, and was concerned about court closures. As 41% of our courts are used at less than half their available capacity, we must think about whether it is sensible to spend more money on the court estate as opposed to other things; at present a fifth of our budget is spent on the court estate. The hon. Lady suggested that we were pushing through this legislation at a time when the House is thinking about other things. That is patently untrue; its measures were included in the Prisons and Courts Bill, which was going through this House but fell at the general election.
The hon. Lady also raised concerns that must be addressed about the immigration tribunals. I highlight to her the measures we are introducing to give court staff the ability to undertake some judicial and other functions. They are already in operation in some tribunals. In the first and upper tier tribunals, for example, there are already three tiers of staff authorised to exercise different judicial functions; the most basic functions of issuing standard directions at commencement of a case can be carried out by authorised staff members at some chambers; slightly more complex functions are undertaken by caseworkers; and the most complex of the delegated functions are generally reserved to registrars, who are legally qualified. The hon. Lady asked whether I have read “The Secret Barrister”, and I am happy to confirm that the Lord Chancellor and I read it many months ago, just as we read many other publications that affect our Department.
The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) thought the measures were a cost-cutting exercise. They absolutely are not; we are asking ourselves how to use resources in the best way possible, how to deploy our judges as efficiently as possible, and how to ensure people get fair and swift judgment. That is not just our view; this is the view from Members across the House. As Lord Marks said in the other place,
“It seems to us relevant that the purpose of this part of the legislation is to increase efficiency and—hopefully, and to everybody’s advantage—the speed of decision-making within the court and tribunal systems, while making some cost savings in so doing.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 October 2018; Vol. 793, c. 414.]
There are three key clauses in this Bill. One is clause 3 on authorised functions, which allows appropriately qualified and experienced court staff in civil, family and magistrates courts and the High Court, Court of Appeal, Court of Protection and tribunals to continue to carry out uncontroversial and straightforward judicial functions under judicial supervision. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) made an important point that I highlighted to the hon. Member for Bristol West: some court staff in these jurisdictions are already carrying out certain of these functions, but we are extending that to the Crown court and freeing up judges from the most routine tasks, ensuring that case preparation and management tasks are distributed at the appropriate level, or reserved to judges when that is proportionate.
As the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) highlighted, the Bill prevents certain judicial functions—for or example, committing someone to prison or serving injunctions—from being undertaken by authorised staff. As his colleague Lord Marks said in the other place, it is right that these should not be delegated.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) suggested that there would be limited scrutiny of officers. This ignores the reality of the Bill, because their tasks will be set by the rule committee, which will be independent, judicially led and therefore best placed to determine the functions of staff. The committee will have a broad membership, including judiciary, representatives of court users and legal professionals. Lord Thomas said in the other place that
“it is important to stress the degree of control inherent in the Bill by the use of the rule committee. I was a member of and chaired…the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee, which I can assure you is a highly representative body with many representatives of the legal profession.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 June 2018; Vol. 791, c. 2039.]
The hon. Lady asked for three years’ post-qualification experience, but qualifications for staff giving legal advice should be set out in regulations, as they have been since 1979. Qualifications ought to depend on the functions involved, and many of the functions that staff currently exercise are straightforward and routine and do not require a legal qualification. An example would be the fixing of hearing dates. She also said that she wanted a statutory right for reconsideration, but many rule committees in the civil and judicial jurisdictions already have a right to reconsideration built in. Magistrates and family courts already have mechanisms for reviewing decisions. This is up to the rule committee, and if it decides not to create such a right, it must give its reasons to the Lord Chancellor, as the Bill states.
My hon. Friends the Members for Cheltenham and for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) talked about the independence of staff. The Bill introduces a statutory guarantee of independence from the Lord Chancellor for authorised Courts and Tribunals Service staff in all jurisdictions, and makes staff answerable to the Lord Chief Justice or the senior president of the tribunal, rather than the Lord Chancellor.
This has been a wide-ranging debate in which the technical matters of the Bill have been raised along with a large number of other matters, which I shall mention briefly. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst talked about the wider Bill; I should stress that the Lord Chancellor and I are keen to bring forward wider legislation in relation to courts, and we will do so as soon as parliamentary time allows. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) rightly advocated for the industry and parliamentary placement scheme, which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) also raised with me in oral questions recently. It is an excellent scheme, and I encourage all those who are interested in joining it to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham spoke about the importance of the judiciary, and he was absolutely right to highlight that point. Our judiciary is respected throughout the world, and we need to continue to attract the best talent to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley mentioned the importance of digitisation. We have a number of schemes in which we are bringing digitisation to our courts. For example, people can now apply online for probate, and petition online for divorce, and we are also bringing a significant amount of technology to the social security tribunal.
I would like to end by responding to the points raised by the hon. Member for Bolton South East and the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) on the shadow Front Bench. They suggested that we were not addressing the bigger issues, but I would like to remind the House that we have been looking at the important question of legal aid for a number of months. We are in the middle of a legal aid review, and we are aware of the issues that are being raised. We will report on that by the end of the year. Hon. Members also raised the issue of domestic violence. As they will know, we have recently consulted on that issue, and we will be bringing in a domestic violence Bill. As they are also aware, cross-examination in the courts will be covered by that Bill.
Finally, we recently consulted on our approach to court closures, and I would like to clarify a number of matters raised today in relation to court closures and finance. The hon. Member for Bolton South East suggested that petty sums were being raised by our court closure programme, which is not true. Since 2015-16, we have recovered £122 million from the court closure programme, all of which is being reinvested in our justice system, and have spent approximately £170 million on capital maintenance.
The Ministry of Justice is committed to continuing to protect the individuals who go through our justice system, and to making their experience better, speedier, fair and just, and it is on that basis that I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.