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Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill [HL]

Volume 798: debated on Tuesday 2 July 2019

Third Reading

Clause 1: Rules for an online procedure in courts and tribunals

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 1, page 2, line 4, leave out “technical”

My Lords, I am grateful to the House for its engagement on this Bill throughout its passage. I will first turn to government Amendment 3 on the topic of paper processors. I thank noble Lords once again for their engagement over recent weeks and commend the constructive discussions that we have had on this topic.

On Report, amendments were tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Beith; the noble Lord, Lord Pannick; and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, to ensure that it was clear in the Bill that the ability to submit paper forms and documents would remain available throughout proceedings governed by Online Procedure Rules, not just at the beginning of the application. I am aware that noble Lords were concerned that people should be able to receive documents from the court in paper form as well as to send them.

Of course, our original government amendment tabled before Report sought to address this issue, but I agreed to go away and look again at whether we could provide additional clarity. It has always been the Government’s intention to ensure that paper processors are available at each stage of the process. We are committed to an accessible justice system which supports the needs of all our users. I hope that our new amendments clarify this to the House.

The new amendments make provision for users to choose a paper option at any time throughout their proceedings, and this includes both the sending and receiving of documents. Our system must be accessible and useful for everyone, and with the Bill as drafted I now think that we have achieved that.

I will now turn to government Amendments 1, 2, 5 and 6. Before Report, the Government tabled two amendments relating to support for users of our online services. The first of these provided that, when making new court rules, the committee must have regard for the needs of those who require support to engage online. The second amendment followed this to ensure that the Lord Chancellor should also have regard for the needs of litigants who require digital support when deciding whether to allow or disallow the Online Procedure Rules. These amendments did, and still do, ensure that rules will be made with due consideration of the support which is in place for those requiring assistance to engage with digital services under the Online Procedure Rules.

I had tabled these further amendments to both clarify the intention and ensure consistency of drafting between the earlier government amendments and the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, which was accepted on Report. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, places a duty on the Government to provide support for users of the online system. The amendment does not use the word “technical” to qualify this support, and instead requires the Lord Chancellor to provide support to assist those people accessing or who wish to access the online procedure by electronic means, in accordance with the electronic procedure rules. The support will be such as the Lord Chancellor considers appropriate and proportionate to assist users to gain greater access to and make better use of online services. The government amendments ensure consistency with that approach. They also underline our intention that users who might otherwise be digitally excluded must have appropriate and proportionate support to assist them to access the electronic services that will underpin the new online procedure.

In addition, there are consequential amendments. Amendments 4 and 7 are minor consequential amendments. Amendment 4 follows on from the insertion in Clause 5(7), by way of amendment on Report in the Lords, which allows the Lord Chief Justice to appoint a judicial member as chair of the Online Procedure Rule Committee. This amendment means that the Lord Chancellor, subject to the concurrence and consultation requirements in Clause 7, may if necessary amend Clause 5(7), as he may amend other provisions in Clause 5.

Finally, following amendment on Report in the Lords, Amendment 7 is consequential to the insertion of Clause 10(3), which requires the Lord Chief Justice’s concurrence before the Lord Chancellor may amend legislation in consequence of, or in order to facilitate the making of, Online Procedure Rules. It allows the Lord Chief Justice to nominate a member of the senior judiciary to give such concurrence. I beg to move.

I think we are in danger of slight confusion, with too many amendments moved at the same time. This is obviously a mark of the Minister’s enthusiasm for his amendments, which is actually shared by Members around the Chamber, because they are the fruit of the discussions to which he referred. I simply want to say, before it all becomes water under the bridge, how very much I welcome the Minister’s Amendment 3, which fully achieves what I have been trying to do in amendments both in Committee and on Report. This is, as the noble and learned Lord indicated, to ensure that someone who does not feel comfortable with or able to use the online system can participate in the same process using paper, can receive any documents they have to receive and can put in any subsequent documents, not just the initiating documents, on paper, because the Courts Service will scan the documents and provide the necessary copies as well.

I suspect that this is a minority and even a generational thing. When people like me have ceased even to think of engaging with court cases, or are lying beneath the ground, everybody will be online—but that is certainly not the situation at the moment. We do not want the law to be blind to the concerns of those for whom this is a very new kind of proceeding, and one for which they do not have the necessary skills or experience, particularly when dealing with something as difficult as a legal case. So I am very grateful to the Minister for all he has done in this respect and I support this—and indeed his other amendments.

My Lords, I support not only the amendments to which my name is attached but all the amendments proposed today. Taken with the earlier amendments which the House considered and which the Government have added, this makes for a much better Bill than ever it was. The particular point I wish to emphasise is that, as a result of these changes, the House, and in particular the Government, have recognised the impact of the constitutional reforms of 2005. The emphasis ought now to be recollected whenever there are any proposals to address the way in which the courts system works. Beyond that, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, for his personal contribution to the discussions and improvements—and, through him, I thank his team.

My Lords, I join noble Lords who have spoken in this very short debate in thanking the noble and learned Lord for the way he has approached the Bill. He has sought very clearly to achieve consensus; he has been open to discussion; and he has obviously been persuaded to make important changes. It is something he might like to have a word with other ministerial colleagues about, because it has not always been the case that Ministers have responded so constructively to debates in the Chamber. On this occasion, I am sure that the House will unanimously agree these amendments. Certainly we on these Benches—such as we are this afternoon—will do so.

My Lords, I wish simply to join in the unanimous praise and gratitude for the Government’s acceptance of those amendments that they have accepted, and their tabling of these amendments today. The Online Procedure Rules are intended to introduce a new and simplified procedure. We were concerned to ensure that litigants who were going to find it difficult to use that procedure, particularly in so far as it was a digital procedure and they would not be using paper means to conduct proceedings, should not be excluded by difficulty from approaching the procedure and should have afforded to them the kind of assistance they would need to handle litigation, without the need for lawyers, under the Online Procedure Rules.

We are particularly grateful for the Government’s acceptance of Amendment 4, which imposes a duty on the Lord Chancellor, as the Minister has explained, to provide assistance or support for digitally excluded people, and these amendments tie in the obligation to have regard to the needs of those people in conducting that litigation. I was particularly concerned about the use of the word “technical” in relation to that assistance, because it seemed to us that that might be unduly restrictive. I am grateful for the excision of that word from the amendments.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister very much, even in relation to a Bill which, as the noble Lord, Lord Marks, has just said, seeks to reduce the role and importance of lawyers in litigation. I want to add two points. The first is to remind the House that the concerns which the Minister has so satisfactorily addressed arise from the report of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, under the distinguished chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton. This confirms the value of the committees that serve this House—I am of course a member of that committee—and reinforces the importance of the non-partisan nature of these committees and the value of the work they do.

Secondly, without in any way undermining the sense of unanimity and gratitude to the Minister, I just remind him that there is one contentious issue which goes to the other place. Your Lordships’ House insisted on amendments, against the wishes of the Government, to what are now Clauses 9(4) and 10(3), requiring the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to use his good efforts to ensure a satisfactory resolution of that issue, as well as all the other issues. The Minister’s role in this Bill has been quite exemplary, and he has done a great deal to ensure that it will leave this House in a much better state than when we started it.

I am obliged to all noble Lords and all noble and learned Lords for their observations regarding the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Beith, observed, it may be difficult to anticipate the speed with which these online procedures are taken up by individuals, but one is reminded of a character in an Ernest Hemingway novel who is asked how he became bankrupt and replies, “Gradually and then suddenly”. It may well be that we will see a similar development with these digitised procedures.

I note what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, have said. The term “satisfactory resolution” is of course open to interpretation. I observe merely that the extent of permanent constitutional reform anticipated by some of the amendments that passed may not be as great as the noble and learned Lord anticipates. However, we wait to see the reaction in the other place.

Again, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to the Bill. It leaves this House a better Bill than it came in—I have no doubt at all about that.

Amendment 1 agreed.

Amendments 2 and 3

Moved by

2: Clause 1, page 2, line 5, at end insert “, in accordance with Online Procedure Rules”

3: Clause 1, page 2, line 8, leave out subsection (6) and insert—

“(6) Where Online Procedure Rules require a person to initiate, conduct, progress or participate in proceedings by electronic means, Online Procedure Rules must also provide that a person may instead choose to do so by non-electronic means.”

Amendments 2 and 3 agreed.

Clause 7: Power to change certain requirements relating to the Committee

Amendment 4

Moved by

4: Clause 7, page 7, line 19, leave out “(6)” and insert “(7)”

Amendment 4 agreed.

Clause 8: Making Online Procedure Rules

Amendments 5 and 6

Moved by

5: Clause 8, page 8, line 9, leave out “technical”

6: Clause 8, page 8, line 10, at end insert “, in accordance with Online Procedure Rules”

Amendments 5 and 6 agreed.

Clause 10: Power to make amendments in relation to Online Procedure Rules

Amendment 7

Moved by

7: Clause 10, page 9, line 9, leave out “(4)” and insert “(3)”

Amendment 7 agreed.

A privilege amendment was made.

Bill passed and sent to the Commons.