Clause 1: Rules for an online procedure in courts and tribunals
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 9, leave out “or require”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 6, which is in the first grouping. On Amendment 1, HMCTS has acknowledged that its assisted digital programme will not be sufficient to support everybody to engage with online processes and has therefore made a commitment that digital services will not be mandated. In relation to the reform agenda, it has been stated that HMCTS will continue to make provision for litigants to continue to use paper documents in accessing family court proceedings. It is therefore concerning that Clause 1(1)(a) would allow the Online Procedure Rule Committee to make rules requiring certain proceedings to be initiated electronically, and that Clause 1(1)(c) would allow rules requiring parties to participate electronically.
The purpose of this amendment is to make it crystal clear that people with particular vulnerabilities will not be required to participate in court proceedings, particularly family proceedings, in a digital way. I think the Government have been too optimistic when looking at the proportion of the population that is digitally excluded. The figure they have is that 18% of the population do not use computing equipment, but I would argue that that number is far too low. When one looks, for example, at the population using internet banking or similar sensitive issues, it is only 56%. I believe it would be helpful if it were clearly stated in the Bill that there will not be an expectation for parties to engage with any family court proceedings online and that paper channels will always be available to anyone who chooses to use them.
Amendment 6 is also part of this group. Clause 1(6) would allow the Online Procedure Rule Committee to set out circumstances under which proceedings should be transferred to a full court hearing, and therefore no longer come under the OPR. Although it may be useful to provide some clarity as to when cases can be transferred, I would be concerned if this resulted in any restriction of judicial discretion, and that any individual case could be transferred to a court hearing if it was required. The purpose of Amendment 6 is to make this point explicit in the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 3 is in my name and in the names of my noble friend Lord Beith and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. This amendment seeks to have the Bill offer a choice to parties between filing forms and other documents under the Online Procedure Rules by electronic means or submitting them on paper. At Second Reading, the Minister said that the Government recognised,
“that not all court and tribunal users will be able to engage online and so paper routes will continue to be available for those who need them”.—[Official Report, 14/5/19; col. 1506.]
The noble and learned Lord has repeatedly said that litigants will have a choice between filing documents electronically and filing paper documents, the intention being that paper documents will be scanned into the online file and available thereafter to be accessed online if desired. That promises a perfectly acceptable arrangement, but I suggest that we need a guarantee that it is going to happen.
For many, this is a matter of considerable importance. While no doubt the electronically literate with access to computers and the internet will choose to produce and file documents online, Lord Justice Briggs, as he then was, recognised in his review the difficulties that would face litigants who are unable to use or access computers. Such difficulties are compounded by the facts that for many there are serious financial challenges in accessing online resources, and that in many areas of the country access to acceptably fast broadband is unavailable. In spite of some progress in this area, I interpose that our inability to guarantee fast broadband across the United Kingdom is shocking.
If the Government intend to ensure a choice for parties between online and paper documents, there can be no good reason for them failing to spell that out in this legislation. Whatever the Government’s good intentions may be, there is no guarantee that a future Government will honour a commitment that is not on the face of the statute. This is not a matter where a statement of intent by the Minister will satisfactorily safeguard future litigants. There can be no downside to incorporating the choice in the Bill.
My noble friend Lord Beith will introduce Amendment 4, in my name as well as his, which has the simple purpose of incorporating into the Bill an opportunity for parties to the litigation to opt by agreement to litigate by the conventional rules rather than the Online Procedure Rules. The Constitution Committee pointed out that the effect of Clause 3(1) would be that the Bill,
“thus supplies a legal basis for the displacement of conventional proceedings by online proceedings irrespective of the wishes of the parties to the claim”.
Our Amendment 4 would alter that in cases where the parties agreed to proceed by way of conventional proceedings. In particular, the availability of such an option might have substantial significance in cases where both parties wanted an oral hearing but where the application of Online Procedure Rules might remove the opportunity to have one.
The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has explained that his Amendment 6 would retain judicial discretion as to whether a conventional court hearing was necessary in individual cases. The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, would go further and permit the court discretion in cases of disagreement between the parties to decide which set of rules should govern the proceedings. I support the principle that, where the parties are not in agreement, the court should decide. Where parties agree, though, I suggest that as a matter of principle their agreement should be honoured. That is particularly important on the necessity for a hearing because I take the clear view, as human rights lawyers always have, that the right to a hearing in cases of serious disputes, even affecting small sums of money, should be unfettered.
My Lords, I can easily follow my noble friend because he has said much of what needs to be said. With Amendment 4, I am trying to explore what the circumstances are in which it would be possible for people to revert to the traditional procedure rather than the online one. I am in favour of the Bill being introduced—I have called for it on many occasions and strongly support it—but the Constitution Committee has pointed out that it raises some issues that need to be clarified and sorted out, and this is one of them.
What are we trying to do here? Are we trying to create an online system that is advantageous, beneficial to the parties and much less cumbersome as well as saving time for the judicial system? Are we then going to encourage people to make use of it in the expectation that they will? The piloting of more limited projects in this area indicates that we have good reason to be optimistic. So is that what we are doing, or are we setting up a system in which it will be almost impossible to insist on conventional court proceedings even in circumstances where both parties think that is right? The question then arises whether you could have circumstances where one party to a dispute could insist, even when it was to the detriment of the other, that the more cumbersome procedure was used. I would be interested in the Minister’s comments on that question. Where both parties are quite clear that there are good reasons for a hearing in court, why should they be precluded from having one if our assumption is that this is a system that would be attractive to users and make the court system function more effectively, particularly in large numbers of money claims of relatively modest size?
One of the ambiguities that surrounds this Bill is what it is really for—whether it is the route to a very wide use of online systems or whether it will be confined in this way. Different statements at different stages of the Bill’s progress have had both a narrow and a wide interpretation. Although Briggs referred to money claims, I think there are wider expectations that make these general issues rather important.
My Lords, I support what has been said by the noble Lords, Lord Marks and Lord Beith. I declare an interest as a barrister practising in offline courts. That was the reason I did not participate at Second Reading.
The Briggs report has been referred to, which said at paragraph 6.13 that there are persons,
“living mainly in rural areas with no access to broadband, those who cannot afford a lap-top or desk-top computer, and those who for a variety of understandable reasons regard moving to computer after a life spent communicating on paper a step too far”.
I agree with previous speakers that it is unacceptable that the Bill says nothing about such potential litigants. The Minister accepts that their interests must be accommodated—they need to be accommodated in the Bill.
That is the view of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, on which I served with the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. Our report said at paragraph 16 that, against the background of what was said by Briggs,
“forcing people to choose between online proceedings or not pursuing legal claims at all risks excluding large numbers of people from the justice system”.
For that reason, your Lordships’ Constitution Committee has recommended that the Bill must place duties on the Lord Chancellor to ensure that adequate provision is made to enable access for the sorts of people I have mentioned.
My Lords, Amendment 10 in my name gives the right to respond, in addition to the person initiating the claim, to choose whether the new procedure applies. Amendment 11 then provides that, in the event of disagreement between the parties, the relevant court or tribunal will determine which course to follow—the matter just referred to by the noble Lord. Indeed, I concur with all the issues raised by the three Members of your Lordships’ House who have spoken already in this debate.
I confess that my drafting is somewhat less than elegant, but this is an important issue, given the difficulty that many will have with an online process, stemming from unfamiliarity with the process or medical or mental health issues. The report of the Constitution Committee of 7 June, to which reference has just been made, raises serious concerns about the process that go beyond the matters referred to in these amendments but are most apposite to them.
The committee declares:
“It is unsatisfactory for legislation to be drafted in a way that fails to acknowledge the fundamental right to a fair hearing, both at common law and under the European Convention on Human Rights. While ministers may have no intention of using the powers provided by the Bill to undermine the right to an oral hearing, it is incumbent on Parliament to frame the powers it confers in a way that acknowledges and respects fundamental constitutional principles”.
The committee expresses its concern that,
“the Bill confers broad powers on ministers to limit oral hearings in a much wider range of cases than is currently envisaged”,
“One way to secure appropriate control over this power would be to require not just consultation with the Lord Chief Justice, or the Senior President of Tribunals where appropriate, but their concurrence”,
in those proposals. In other words, consultation has to be taken seriously in these circumstances—perhaps more seriously than in most, given what is at stake here for the workings of our legal system.
My Lords, I support the intentions of Amendments 1 and 6 in the name of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby and Amendments 10 and 11 in the name of my noble friend Lord Beecham. In summary, they remove the potential requirement that people must choose between online proceedings and not pursuing legal claims, strengthen judicial discretion on the need for a full court hearing and protect the right of parties to proceedings to seek oral hearings.
It is right that courts and tribunals be modernised, but in utilising new technologies access to justice must not be undermined. The impact assessment notes that the conventional economic rationale for government intervention is based on efficiency or equity arguments. The rationale here is efficiency, referencing,
“outdated processes … costly for both the Government and court users”.
A reliance on an efficiency rationale must not prejudice access to justice, but I fear that that is the Bill’s potential impact. Clauses 1 to 3 give Ministers extremely broad powers to replace traditional proceedings with online ones, allowing for the possibility of online proceedings being the only option in the absence of Clause 3 regulation permitting a person to choose between online or conventional proceedings.
The Minister can give assurances as to the Government’s intentions but they are not binding over time. The Government argue that additional safeguards are not needed, but the Online Procedure Rule Committee’s powers will be far greater than those of any existing rule committees. Indeed, concerns about access to justice are heightened because the Bill confers powers to limit oral hearings in a wider range of cases than was envisaged by Lord Justice Briggs’s recommendation to introduce an online court to resolve low-value civil money claims. I quote the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, at Second Reading:
“Effectively, this Bill covers all non-criminal proceedings … this is a serious, wide-ranging Bill with wide-ranging consequences”.—[Official Report, 14/5/19; col. 1511.]
It may be argued that protecting access to justice is implicit in the Bill, but I believe that Parliament needs greater confidence; it should not rest on judicial intervention or ministerial assurance to address concerns about ministerial powers. I recall the Minister addressing this House on the draft Employment Tribunals and Employment Appeal Tribunal Fees Order 2013 in response to concerns that such fees would restrict access to justice. He asserted:
“We believe that the mitigations we have put in place will properly protect access to justice for those seeking to bring claims”.—[Official Report, 8/7/13; col. 85.]
In July 2017, the Supreme Court unanimously held that, as the order prevented access to justice, tribunal fees were unlawful and must be quashed with immediate effect.
As many noble Lords have said, curtailing the use of oral hearings will have a particular impact on access to justice for vulnerable court users with limited digital means, digital literacy and general literacy skills. The Constitution Committee observed that,
“the Office for National Statistics concluded that … 5.3 million adults in the UK … could be characterised as ‘internet non-users’”.
However, the committee noted that this figure may understate the problem. It said:
“Such figures do not take into account those with limited digital skills, for whom basic browsing and messaging may be within their capabilities but the complexity of online legal forms may not”.
People with limited general literacy skills will be disadvantaged by proceedings conducted solely in writing without access to oral hearings. As has been referred to, the charity Mind reports how people with mental health problems are disproportionately likely to experience digital exclusion, struggle with digital engagement and are nearly twice as likely to experience legal problems.
The Government’s objective is to devise new rules that will focus on users being able to solve grievances and resolve their issues online at the earliest opportunity, as well as to encourage more people to resolve disputes before they reach the hearing stage. If the Government are right in their assumptions, which are still to be tested, many people will prefer to use online proceedings voluntarily and efficiencies will be gained. However, that is not compulsion; people should retain the right to seek access to an oral hearing. Ministerial powers with the potential to require people to choose between online proceedings or not pursuing legal claims carry the real risk of incompatibility with the principle of access to justice. Amendments 1, 6, 10 and 11 seek to address that risk.
My Lords, the Government’s view was expressed at Second Reading, but Amendment 1 seems to strike at the heart of what is required. Clause 1 states,
“may authorise or require the parties”.
to use electronic means at hearings. That suggests the possibility of compulsion that would not exclude any section of the community. The amendment I find slightly difficult is Amendment 3, which states,
“may be filed by electronic means or on paper or a combination of both at the choice of the party”.
I would have thought that it should be one thing or the other. I imagine that it might cause confusion if you have an electronic bit and then a bit on paper stuck in, unless there is a clear way of showing in the electronic bit that there is another bit to follow. It is that part of the amendment that I find slightly difficult.
My Lords, I am reminded that these provisions will apply to family law procedures. Of course, it may improve the resolution of family issues, which will benefit the children involved, but there is a concern that it may make resolution more difficult and thus adversely affect the children in those families. Has the family test been applied to the Bill? I do not see that in the accompanying notes and perhaps it is not appropriate to apply the family test to it. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me whether the family test has been applied.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 1, 3, 4, 6, 10 and 11, which relate to the operation of the online procedure and how we can ensure that people using it are not disadvantaged. I intend to turn first to Amendment 3, which covers whether a user can choose between digital and paper channels. Then I will move on to Amendments 1, 4, 6, 10 and 11, pertaining to the online procedure and the matter of choice.
Amendment 3 suggests that claimants and respondents should have the choice of whether to use paper or digital channels when engaged in the simplified online procedure. I can confirm that the Government agree with this point, and indeed there is provision for this already. Essentially, where the online procedure comes into place, it will be possible to access it either by way of the digital portal or by way of a written document of claim. Other written documents may also be used when employing the simplified online procedure. The intention, which already applies to some of the digital procedures we have in place for small debt, is that the document will be scanned into the system and will therefore be part of the process. The idea is to ensure that parties are not excluded from the simplified procedure that will be brought in under this online procedure simply because they feel unable to employ, or are incapable of employing, the digital process itself. However, there is a distinction between that and the situation in which, when dealing with debt claims of under £25,000 for example, a claimant or any other party would be allowed to opt either for the simplified procedure that will be promulgated under the online procedure or to have recourse to the existing Civil Procedure Rules and the more complex procedure that pertains there. It is not intended under the Bill that claimants should have an option between the simplified procedure and the more complex procedure. I shall come on to develop that a little more in a moment.
Perhaps I may take this opportunity to confirm that we have no plans to remove the availability of paper channels for citizens under the remit of the Online Procedure Rule Committee. Of course, it is our intention to create a digital service that will be easy to access and use—indeed, so easy to access and use that it becomes the default choice for the majority of users. We recognise, however, that not everyone will be able to use it, or wish to proceed with that digital choice without support. For that reason, a paper route will remain open.
We want to be clear that users can expect an equity of service, regardless of whether they proceed with a digital approach or a written claim. Where different parties choose different channels, we will seamlessly join them together by means of a scanning and printing service, so users who want to send and receive papers will still have that choice—they will not need to resort to the online portal. To that extent, I offer my assurance that paper channels are still available and will be available under the Online Procedure Rules. The Bill will do nothing to remove them.
Does the Minister accept that nothing in the Bill guarantees that? He gives us an assurance, but surely it would be better to write that into the Bill.
If every time we legislated we decided to guarantee everything from A to Z, we would end up with very long Bills. The position is this: there is the ability to proceed by way of the paper process. Nothing prohibits it, there is no inhibition on that process, and there is no intention to introduce such an inhibition.
Turning to Amendments 10 and 11—
Before my noble and learned friend leaves Amendment 3, I understood him to say he would accept it, so that it would go into the Bill—although without, I hope, the choice of the combination.
No, I do not accept the amendment. What I say is that there are existing means by which we can assure people that they can proceed by way of a digital portal or by way of a written claim, which will be scanned and taken into the online procedure process once it is up and running.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way again, but I must press him. We are dealing here with fundamental issues of access to justice. Surely if the Minister recognises that paper procedures must always be available to litigants, it is absolutely vital that the Bill says so.
I am afraid I cannot accept that. There is nothing in the Bill that would prohibit the employment of such a paper process once the online procedure is up and running. Indeed, the noble Lord will appreciate that, when it comes to the making of rules by the relevant committee, the process will involve the judiciary as well as the Executive.
We have heard reference already to the idea of consultation, and we will in due course look at amendments to the Bill that seek to shift the question of consultation to one of concurrence. Therefore, we will be in a position to rely on not only any decision-making on the part of the Executive but also the contribution of the judiciary to how it sees that these processes should best be applied in the interest of all litigants. I emphasise “all litigants” because, when we seek to simplify the court process and reduce its potential cost, we are doing so for the benefit of litigants in general. We will come to concurrence and consultation later.
We must bear in mind that this is not a case of Ministers dictating what the relevant rules will be. It is a case of the Executive setting out the machinery by which a rule committee can come into place and set out appropriate rules and regulations for the online procedure, in consultation with the judiciary and with its input, and potentially with its concurrence.
I am sorry to press the point, but does the Minister accept that without the guarantee in the Bill of his intention, we could lose this procedure at some stage in the future, and that this House may well wish to see that guarantee entrenched in the Bill, so that primary legislation would be necessary to remove the procedure?
I quite see that this House might wish to see it in primary legislation, but the position is this: a committee will be formed to put forward appropriate rules and regulations for the online procedure, under the essential supervision not only of the Executive but of the judiciary. There may come a point, at some unforeseeable time in the future, where the judiciary is of the view that it is no longer necessary to employ paper as a form of application or entry into the judicial process. I do not anticipate that happening—there is nothing here to suggest it will happen—and I do not see that there is a requirement for such a guarantee in the form of primary legislation. We intend to form an Online Procedure Rule Committee that will be well qualified to determine the appropriate routes into the online procedure for all parties concerned, including those perhaps not digitally competent or confident. That remains the position.
Perhaps I may press the Minister on one point. It is easy to see that there is a distinction between an online procedure and the way the court works. If it was made clear that the online procedure is largely geared to ensuring that the systems that lie behind it operate efficiently across the system but that, in using that procedure, if people did not want to go online the court would undertake to scan the documents in—if that distinction was made—would the Minister accept that what really is needed, because these amendments do not grapple with the problem, is a guarantee to the litigant that he can go to court, hand in a piece of paper and it will be scanned into the system? That is all.
If that is the effect of these amendments—and it is limited to that—would that not achieve everything and give an opportunity to increase access to justice? In the current system access to justice is a figment of the imagination, but the use of an online procedure would enable this to happen. Will the Minister look at this issue again in the light of my suggestion to him?
I hear what the noble and learned Lord has said and I will take account of those observations in going forward to the next stage of the Bill. However, at present it is not my intention to accept any of the amendments so far laid in respect of this matter. If there is a way through by which we can underline the right of a party to make an application on paper to the relevant online procedure once it is up and running, that would essentially achieve the objective that we have and I believe the House has. However, I do not accept that it will be achieved by means of the present amendments.
The Minister will know that in a recent Constitution Committee meeting we discussed the Bill with him at length. If there is to be no indication in the Bill that there is a possibility of making a paper application to the court, what advice or direction will be given to this Committee to make it plain that there will be that advice? We know that a significant proportion of the population of this country might be able to use email but cannot use on online form.
We intend to appoint a committee of experts to formulate these rules, including judicial members. They will have regard to the need for access to justice. Certainly, we have confidence in the ability of such a committee to formulate rules that reflect the need for all members of the community to have access, not only those who are perhaps more digitally alert and astute than the minority. We lay our confidence in the fact that there will be such a committee, that it will make regulations and that it will do it under the aegis of not only the Executive but the judiciary, and the Lord Chief Justice in particular.
Does the Minister accept that Clause 7 gives the Minister powers to override or disallow the views of the Online Procedure Rule Committee? However meritorious its views, the Minister would have the power to override them.
There are circumstances in which the Minister may give directions to the committee—I accept that—and that reflects the current position with regard to the other rule committees already in existence, including the tribunal rules, the civil rules and the criminal rules. It exists by way of an executive direction and is there for good reason as a fallback. I understand that the power has been used only once with regard to the existing committees, to address a potential anomaly in the existing rules. It is an exceptional power but it is there because it reflects the existing power in the provisions for the other rule committees.
I apologise for not being at Second Reading but perhaps the Minister will indulge me by helping me with the purpose of Clause 1(1)(a), which states:
“For proceedings of a specified kind, there are to be procedural rules which … must require that kind of proceedings, or one or more aspects of that kind of proceedings, to be initiated by electronic means”.
It is to ensure that where, for example, there are debt actions below a certain level—let us take a figure of £25,000—they must be initiated by way of the Online Procedure Rules, the simplified procedural rules, rather than by way of the existing Civil Procedure Rules. It is for that purpose that the paragraph is there. In other words, it will not be open to a party who wants to make a small debt claim to decide they want to use the more complex and potentially more expensive Civil Procedure Rules as distinct from the Online Procedure Rules and the simplified procedure that goes with them.
I shall address Amendments 10 and 11, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, alongside Amendment 4, which I believe was tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Marks and Lord Beith, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, as well as Amendments 1 and 6, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby.
Amendments 1 and 6 concern the continued availability of physical proceedings rather than online proceedings. Amendment 4 seeks to allow the parties to proceedings to choose whether to engage with the online procedure or the current procedural rules. This is a point that I just sought to touch upon. Amendments 10 and 11 are intended to deal with those cases where one party wishes to leave the online procedure, but another does not.
This is not what the Bill is intended to achieve. The Bill provides the flexibility for a case to progress via the online rules, or via the traditional rules of the civil procedure if necessary. Where a case is so complex that that the online procedure is clearly inappropriate, it will be for the judge to determine, and he will have the discretion to do so, whether a case should remain within the online procedure or should proceed by way of the traditional civil rules instead. Where both parties make a representation that the case should not proceed by way of the online procedure, then of course the court will hear those representations and take them into account, but ultimately it will be for the court to decide the appropriate procedure for the disposal of any claim. That is as it should be and is as it is with regard to our existing civil procedures. Ultimately, it is for the court to make these procedural decisions, not for the parties to dictate them, but of course their views will be taken into account. Equally, where parties, or one party, are of the view that an oral hearing will be required in circumstances where it might not ordinarily have been anticipated, it will be open to that party, or the parties if they are agreed, to make those representations to the court in order that the court can make the final decision about the appropriate procedure to be employed. Again, that is as it should be. It is ultimately for the court to decide the most appropriate process and procedure for the disposal of individual claims.
Under Amendment 4, users would in effect have the right to choose whether to use the Online Procedure Rules or the traditional rules. Similar points are made in the other amendments. We do not consider that that is the appropriate way to proceed. Users will have sufficient control over proceedings to ensure that they have access to justice, which will not be limited in any way, and certainly not in a way that would intrude upon any rights under Article 6 of the convention.
The online procedure system is simply designed to offer the ordinary user an easier way to access justice, while giving parties the choice to remain in a position to make paper applications to the online simplified procedure rather than engage with the digital portal. I reassure noble Lords that we are not seeking to impinge in any way upon the parties’ right of access to justice, but ultimately we must leave it to the court to determine procedural questions brought before it, albeit that it will make those decisions subject to the representations by or on behalf of the parties to the proceedings.
As I mentioned in passing and in response to the noble Lord, Lord Beith, where a physical hearing arises, it will be for the parties to make representations. Ultimately, it will be for the court to determine on the material before it whether such a physical, oral hearing is required for the disposal of a case. That, I suggest, is as it should be.
I hope that that also reassures the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, with regard to judicial discretion. That, ultimately, is paramount, and nothing in the Bill or that we would anticipate in the regulations to be made pursuant to the powers under the Bill would undermine that judicial discretion, which ultimately has be exercised in the interests of justice and for the benefit of the parties. With that, I hope that the noble Lord will consider whether at this stage it is appropriate to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, before that happens, I express my apologies for not being able to take part at Second Reading. I thank the Minister for asking his office to contact me and I am sorry that I delayed replying until Friday. I just want to comment on the family test. This was introduced in 2014 to be applied to Bills and involved a number of questions such as, “What kind of impact might the policy have on family formation?” and “What kind of impact might it have on stability in the family?” Although the test is not mandatory, this seems an appropriate Bill to have had it applied to, and I simply express the wish that in the future it might be applied to Bills similar to this one.
My Lords, I have some difficulty with Amendment 1 and the answer that my noble and learned friend has given. As I understand it, the amendment deals with rules. It is not judicial discretion but rules that may require the parties to participate in the hearing by means of electronic devices. Therefore, it is not a question of the judge in charge of the case making that decision; the preliminary rules will require it, and the judge will be bound by that. He will say that he is sorry to whoever comes along with a bit of paper and explain that they are not able to do that because the rules dictate that it has to be done by electronic means, so they will have to get themselves a computer.
With respect to my noble and learned friend, my understanding of the position is that the rules will require that certain forms of action—for example, small debt action—should be commenced under the simplified Online Procedure Rules by way of the digital portal, whether you go through electronically or, as I mentioned before, by way of a paper application. However, once that process is in train, there will be a retained judicial discretion to decide whether the case should remain under the simplified online procedure or whether it would be more appropriate for it to be removed from that procedure and to proceed under the ordinary Civil Procedure Rules to an oral hearing.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who took part in this short debate, which has covered quite a wide area. I understand the point made by the Minister about these being civil actions for relatively small amounts of money, and not having the discretion as regards initiating proceedings on paper if that were the case. Although this is the main focus of the Bill now, it has wider connotations—a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. Some of us, including myself, are thinking about this from other perspectives such as the family jurisdiction.
When addressing Amendment 4, the noble Lord, Lord Marks, made an interesting point, asking what happens when both parties agree to proceed with online proceedings. I thought he intimated that there should be an expectation that they would indeed go ahead with online proceedings. Certainly, from the perspective of somebody who sits in the family jurisdiction, I would say that that would not be appropriate. Whether matters go ahead either online or otherwise should be retained as a judicial decision because it is not unusual for parties to agree to something that is inappropriate in the family courts; the court needs to take a separate view.
Having said that, I thank the Minister for addressing the points; I suspect we will return to them at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 14, at end insert—
“( ) Civil Procedure Rules, Family Procedure Rules, Tribunal Procedure Rules, employment tribunal procedure regulations and EAT procedure rules must determine for the relevant jurisdiction which proceedings can be governed by the Online Procedure Rules Committee.”
My Lords, Amendment 2 addresses Schedule 2 on the Online Procedure Rule Committee, how it relates to proceedings under the standard civil, family and tribunal procedures rules, and when these do not apply. Although I appreciate the importance of a clear process indicating which rules govern proceedings—and giving precedence to one committee does achieve that—I am concerned that the result will be the OPRC being able to make decisions about the appropriateness of online procedures for cases without input from the Family Procedure Rule Committee or other relevant jurisdictional committees. Amendment 2 could resolve this issue by clarifying under Clause 1 that the relevant jurisdictional rule committee must determine which proceedings can be governed by Online Procedure Rule Committee.
On Amendment 8, Clause 1(1)(b) would allow the OPRC to designate any family proceedings to be dealt with online. While I appreciate that the aim of the legislation is to be permissive, with the details to be delegated to the OPRC, I am concerned that no limits are set out in the primary legislation in relation to the appropriateness of online processes within the family court. At Second Reading, I raised concerns about the appropriateness of full video hearings in the family court. The president of the Family Division has said that, in the vast majority of cases, face-to-face hearings would normally be required for contested cases involving oral evidence, multiparty cases concerning litigants in person, or any cases concerning children. It can be the case that not all participants have to be present in court. I know that is fairly common practice in other parts of the country, depending on the distance to be travelled, when turning to the family court. But the general expectation should be that anything to do with the family jurisdiction—any contested matter—should be held in person and not online.
I beg to move.
My Lords, I refer to Amendments 7 and 8 in this group. I suspect that the inclusion of a reference to criminal justice proceedings is otiose; I hope so. No doubt the Minister will confirm that, in which case I will not press the issue; it would be entirely unnecessary, as indeed it should be.
There is a concern about possession claims for homes. We in your Lordships’ House are all aware of the great pressure on the housing sector and the vulnerability of a great many people in private rented accommodation in particular. It seems sensible that they should not be included in the general proposition of reverting to digital processes, because I suspect they are the least likely to be able to cope with that way of proceeding. I hope the noble and learned Lord will give that some further consideration, although he may not necessarily respond one way or the other today. Given the state of the housing market and the well-known difficulties experienced by so many tenants—and the difficulties they would have in proceeding under the provisions of the Bill, particularly in the absence of legal aid and advice in so many parts of the country—it would be wrong to include them in a system which would effectively give them no recourse to advice and support.
My Lords, I share the concerns behind these amendments. There are plainly specific types of proceedings which it is wholly inappropriate to determine online. Perhaps the strongest example is any proceedings relating to the welfare of children. In my view, it is inconceivable that it would ever be appropriate for such matters to be so determined. Yet the powers under the Bill are quite sufficient to allow that to happen, because Clause 1(1)(b) allows for rules which may authorise or require proceedings,
“to be conducted, progressed or disposed of by electronic means”.
This is just one of the many examples of the Bill, which is wholly desirable, failing to include sufficient limitations to preclude the use of these powers in ways that we would all accept are inappropriate.
It may be that the proper answer to this concern is for the Government to support the amendment we are coming to in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. That would ensure that these powers cannot be used without the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice. I respectfully suggest that the Minister needs to recognise that there is a problem here. The Bill is so broadly drafted that it will allow the exercise of powers in ways that we would all accept are inappropriate.
I have one question for the Minister. There is an outstanding consultation paper on the housing court, looking at whether we should bring together all the various complicated forms of housing legislation before one tribunal. How will taking out one of the parts of what would be a housing court matter affect it, when what we are dealing with is the procedural system to be applied rather than detailed means of service and hearings, which is what this is about? It would be helpful to have that explained.
We would be rash to assume that paper service of proceedings comes to people’s attention more readily. Certainly, we have found that if you want to get people to attend jury service, or some other things, it is much better to send them a text rather than a brown envelope; they normally respond to texts. That is modern thinking. I think noble Lords will find that people more readily respond in that way. This is much more a detailed matter of procedure.
Does the noble and learned Lord accept that the powers in this Bill cover far more than process? As I have indicated, Clause 1(1)(b) is concerned with rules as to how proceedings are,
“conducted, progressed or disposed of”.
I accept that, but I think it is part of the terminology used. That is why, in the intervention I made earlier, I said that it is important to appreciate the difference between a simplified procedure and the way the court works. Unfortunately, despite everything the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, did to try to simplify civil procedure, the White Book has grown from 2,000 to 3,000 pages.
We need to go back. It is an unfortunate tendency of lawyers to ossify everything. This is an attempt, using electronic means, to make access to justice easier and to simplify it, but we plainly need safeguards. I am sure the best safeguard of all is the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice, which I am sure would solve most of these problems yet allow access to justice to use 21st-century methods to make it cheaper and—if I may, with some trepidation, say so in this House—to conduct litigation without the need to deploy expensive lawyers.
My Lords, the weakness in this part of the Bill seems to be that there are no limitations on or barriers to the total extension of the online procedure to all civil, family and tribunal proceedings. Nobody is actually suggesting that, but the absence of any barriers means that we can stray into that territory before there has even been a serious debate about how we could use online procedures in some of these areas. It is fairly obvious for small money claims and promising in a number of other areas, but the Bill is so wide that its lack of any specified criteria or other limitations is worrying.
My Lords, I begin by responding to the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. This is a piece of enabling legislation—a very welcome one, I suggest—it is not a case of us bringing in powers without limits or regulation. It will establish an expert committee, including judicial representatives, legal representatives and others, that will be able to call upon the expertise of others in particular areas as and when it comes to address them. I will come on to that in a moment in the context of family law. It will operate under the umbrella of not only the Lord Chancellor—or, in the case of employment tribunals, the Secretary of State for BEIS—but the Lord Chief Justice. It does not give free rein to some individual in the Executive to determine how court cases will be determined, but I emphasised that it is concerned only with civil procedure. As the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, acknowledged, the reference in his amendment to criminal procedure is otiose and unnecessary.
Over and above that, I seek to anticipate something that will arise repeatedly in the debate—the position of the Lord Chief Justice regarding the operation of this matter overall, a point we touched on at Second Reading. I am conscious of the desire in some quarters that certain of the Bill’s provisions should provide not simply for consultation with the Lord Chief Justice, which, let us be clear, is a formidable requirement: if you consult with the Lord Chief Justice you consult with him, and if you do so you do not ignore his advice or opinion. Indeed, if you did, it would be open to him to make a report to Parliament under Section 5 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which I think one of my officials referred to as the nuclear option. It is not one that anybody would want to encourage.
I am conscious of the suggestion that, in some areas, we should move from the idea of consultation with the Lord Chief Justice to one of concurrence. That, in a way, touches on many of the issues that arise in the Bill. I can go no further at this stage than say that I have that under active consideration and would anticipate returning to the point on Report. I do not give any unequivocal undertaking, but I indicate that I appreciate how and why certain aspects of the Bill, if moved from consultation to concurrence, would meet some of the concerns, particularly those expressed by the Constitution Committee, regarding this matter. I make that general observation at this stage, because it is a point that we may well return to with regard to certain further amendments.
As I set out at Second Reading, the intention is, as far as possible, to make online procedure the preferred procedure for the commencement and defending of cases that fall within its remit. Of course, our ambition is to develop services that are easier to access and to use, so that over time, digital channels become the default choice for at least the majority of users. I emphasise “majority of users”, for the reasons which we have already touched upon.
As we have set out, our initial intention is that this procedure would consider civil money claims up to a value of £25,000 before widening its remit to cover other proceedings, so it is a question of taking it step by step to see how these procedures will work. It is not our intention that the OPRC would start to remake rules across other jurisdictions immediately. We want to complement and build upon the work of the existing committees in this area, to see whether this incremental approach to the extension of the OPRC’s remit can be successful. But no proceedings will be brought into the Online Procedure Rules without the views of the judiciary, of the committee and, in particular, of the Lord Chief Justice being taken into account—whether by consultation or by way of his concurrence.
Amendment 2, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, appears to be intended to transfer the regulation-making power set out in the Bill from the Lord Chancellor to the existing procedure rules committees—or at least make it subject to that. In effect, it would be for those existing rules committees to decide when proceedings may be subject to the Online Procedure Rules. We consider that this would pose a number of serious practical difficulties.
First, it would place the legislation required to bring proceedings under the remit of the Online Procedure Rule Committee on an entirely different footing from that for the existing rules committees for civil, criminal and tribunal. It would be on the basis of a negative resolution statutory instrument developed by an independent rules committee, as opposed to an affirmative instrument laid by the Government, and that, in itself, would not allow for the appropriate degree of parliamentary scrutiny which should be applied here.
The second difficulty is, I am sure, entirely unintentional. Under the existing civil procedure rules committees, there is a means by which—for example, with regard to employment tribunals and employment appeal tribunals—the Secretary of State in the case of the employment tribunal or the Lord Chancellor in the case of the employment appeal tribunal, can direct the making of regulations or rule-making powers. I do not believe that that would be a consequence one would seek in the present context.
Thirdly, the three existing rules committees cover three entirely independent jurisdictions, and it is unclear how they might decide among themselves which proceedings should be extended to the Online Procedure Rule Committee and which should not. We anticipate that in itself creating very real practical difficulties over the administration of the future Online Procedure Rule Committee. This is why we do not consider that this amendment would have an acceptable outcome.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, touched on housing. At present there is no intention to proceed with the simplified Online Procedure Rules in respect of housing cases. However, housing cases are governed by the Civil Procedure Act 1997, and are therefore subject to the Civil Procedure Rules, meaning that they would potentially be subject to the OPRC in the future. If and when that were to occur, it would be after consultation or concurrence with the Lord Chief Justice. It would occur because the committee had determined to proceed in that way—a committee which at that stage could be joined by suitable experts in housing law, and other related experts. Only at that stage would it be contemplated.
I notice, however, that although that is not presently anticipated, it is currently possible to initiate some housing enforcement claims online, through the Possession Claim Online website. That has been operational for almost a decade. There have been no difficulties—certainly no reported difficulties—over access to justice because of the use of that Possession Claim Online website. So I accept the potential width of the Bill.
This brings me to Amendment 8, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, the issue of family proceedings and the concern that has been expressed there. There may well be situations, such as those posited by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, where one would never anticipate online procedure or digital process being appropriate for types of family law cases, such as those concerned with children and their welfare. Nobody is suggesting otherwise, but it is not necessary for us to list particular exclusions, because in doing so one is liable to overlook something. It is far better for us to ensure there are appropriate safeguards in place, such as by judicial input, whether by consultation or concurrence; by having an appropriately qualified committee with the ability to bring in experts, particularly on areas such as family law or child welfare; and by ensuring that we proceed incrementally only where the introduction of these simplified procedures is in the interest of litigants. There are circumstances in which it may be in the interest of litigants, in family law cases, to have access to a simple, inexpensive online procedure for the resolution of some types of dispute.
To support that approach, perhaps the Government should be using different language from that used in the Explanatory Notes in paragraph 1, which says:
“We expect the Committee to focus on the civil and family jurisdictions in the first instance”.
That is pretty broad.
It is intentionally broad. Again, this is not going to proceed without the input of the judiciary, in particular the Lord Chief Justice, and without application to the formulation of rules of a committee with expertise in all these areas. I suggest it would be counterproductive to introduce at the outset statutory limitations on the operation of these simplified procedures. That is an unnecessary straitjacket, given the way the legislation is formulated and how the simplified Online Procedure Rules will be introduced, not only by the Executive but by the judiciary and relevant committee. In these circumstances, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Did the Minister imply that it would be possible to bring forward provision to include housing, presumably by secondary legislation? Is that what he has in mind? If so, would it be an affirmative or negative resolution?
To clarify, I believe I said that many housing issues are currently governed by the Civil Procedure Act 1997. They are therefore subject to civil procedural rules and could, in turn, be subject to rules introduced by the OPRC for digital access. There is no present intention to address that in the context of housing. I went on to add that, at present, there is an online procedure for some forms of housing claim, such as possession claims, which can be made through the relevant website. I emphasise that housing cases fall within the wide remit of this legislation, but there is no present intention to embrace them within the OPRC.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. I understand the central point made by the Minister: that he does not want any statutory limitations on the relationship between the various committees. My Amendment 2 gave one model of a relationship between the two committees. I shall withdraw the amendment, but there is no statutory relationship between any of the committees at the moment. That may have to be developed over time. It may not be for this Bill, but all the committees will have to have a close working relationship which will have to be developed one way or the other. Nevertheless, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendments 3 and 4 not moved.
5: Clause 1, page 1, line 22, at end insert—
“( ) Online Procedure Rules must provide that a party or potential party to proceedings governed or to be governed by Online Procedure Rules is entitled to assistance, to be known as “Designated Assistance”, with the conduct or progress of such proceedings, to be made available in accordance with section (Designated Assistance).”
My Lords, Amendments 5 and 13 in this group are in my name and those of my noble friend Lord Beith, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. Our amendments would incorporate in the Bill a requirement that the Government provide necessary assistance for parties or potential parties to online proceedings, both claimants and defendants, who need help navigating them.
At Second Reading, the Minister promised:
“All our online services will be accompanied by appropriate and robust safeguards to protect and support users and to ensure that access to justice is maintained. In pursuing this approach, we recognise that there will be people who will need help accessing a new digital system”.—[Official Report, 14/5/19; col. 1506.]
He promised that the Government would put in place a comprehensive programme of support, which he described as “assisted digital”, which would include help for court users by telephone, online or by other electronic means or face to face. I pointed out in that debate that the Briggs review had stressed the importance of ensuring that access to justice was not compromised by the introduction of Online Procedure Rules. The Briggs report described the success of the online court as “critically dependent” on providing digital assistance for those who could not cope with computerised procedures.
The Constitution Committee, under the section of its report headed “Access to Justice”, argued eloquently that, with 5.3 million adults in the UK who could be characterised as “internet non-users” and with 29% of people over 65 having “zero digital skills”, not including those with limited digital skills or limited access to computers or broadband, the Bill makes no provision to safeguard access to justice in the way promised by the Minister at Second Reading. The committee recommended that,
“the Bill places a duty on the Lord Chancellor to ensure that adequate provision is made to enable access to online proceedings for those with limited digital means, digital literacy, or general literacy”.
We agree. At Second Reading, not only the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, but the noble and learned Lords, Lord Thomas and Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, called for a statutory commitment to digital assistance.
Once again in this group of amendments, I reject the assurance that it is safe to rely on an extra statutory statement of intention by the Government. That is especially true on a matter of such importance to the success of this reform in terms both of access to justice and of the rule of law. This commitment could and should be clearly expressed in the Bill in a way that would make it much more difficult for future Governments to resile from it. I make no apology for putting forward a similar point in relation to designated assistance to that which I made in relation to filing documents on paper.
Our amendments are comprehensive but flexible. Amendment 5 would introduce the general duty to provide assistance to a party or potential party to proceedings under Online Procedure Rules in accordance with the detailed provisions set out in Amendment 13. That amendment would give the Government flexibility on who should provide assistance and how. Designated assistance could be provided either directly through HM Courts & Tribunals Service, under contract with outside organisations, or through the voluntary sector. It would be for the Minister to determine what assistance could be provided by telephone, what by electronic means and what in person or by other reasonable means.
Our amendments are concerned with outcomes rather than structure; different providers might provide assistance in different but complimentary ways. However, in determining what assistance must be provided, and by what means, the appropriate Minister is to be subject to an overriding requirement that he or she should consider that assistance sufficient to enable the party receiving it to have a reasonable understanding of the nature of the proceedings, of the procedure under the Online Procedure Rules, and of how to access that procedure. The assistance will have to cover the completion of online forms—easy for lawyers and officials, perhaps, but often a nightmare for lay litigants. It will also have to cover the kinds of evidence that may be necessary to support or establish a claim or defence. Designated assistance should also be available about the requirements and meaning of the Online Procedure Rules. The requirement for assistance on the kinds of evidence required to establish a litigant’s case is particularly important and will save parties, and ultimately the courts, considerable time and trouble. Far too often, proceedings fail or are delayed because litigants in person are unaware of the kinds of evidence they are likely to need to establish their cases. Assistance with this aspect at an early stage of online proceedings may do much to help reduce costs, delays and frustration.
Those who may say that this is a step too far in favour of the courts service providing legal advice are missing the point of these reforms. The days are over when the court office tells litigants to go and seek the advice of a solicitor on generic issues such as this, for precisely the reasons expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, in relation to hiring expensive lawyers. If online proceedings are to work well and improve rather than stifle access to justice, they have to be targeted on enabling litigants without lawyers to use the courts successfully. Perhaps at this stage I should declare the same interest as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in relation to my being a lawyer in offline courts. That is the point of these reforms. It will be achieved only if parties are provided with the kind of help our amendments would require.
An important further point is that for litigants whose first language is not English and who have no familiarity with English, interpretation or translation should be available to enable them to understand proceedings in a language familiar to them. Far too often, the need for lawyers arises even in relatively simple cases where intelligent and capable litigants whose command of English is limited are obliged to instruct lawyers simply because they receive no help in understanding proceedings in their own languages. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support this amendment. I am a patron of the charity Best Beginnings, which has produced an application that can be downloaded from the NHS store for mothers around the births of their children. We are finding that it is tremendously effective in reaching black and minority-ethnic mothers in particular, and mothers on the lowest incomes. This has been developed with all the royal colleges, and it has taken time, money and a real strong effort from the charity over many years to develop such a good product that reaches out particularly to families for whom English is not the first language. One of the key selling points of this app is the videos attached to it. Mothers will see people like themselves talking about what it was like to experience depression or how to breastfeed and communicate with your infant. They can identify with those parents.
There is a tremendous opportunity here to make something which is really effective and helps litigants in person and people whose first language is not English to understand how to approach these matters. The noble Lord’s amendments are very important to ensure that there is a commitment up front to producing the best possible means for families and others to engage with the digital technology available and to get the best outcomes for them and their families.
Of course, with a product such as this—I am not pushing this one specifically—there are back-end analytics through which one can tell in an anonymous way exactly how often it is used and who uses it, so there would be plenty of feedback on how well it is working. I hope that the Minister can give a reassuring answer to the noble Lord.
My Lords, I am supportive of Amendments 5 and 13, which outline the sort of assistance that is very much required. For Amendment 13, my preference is that the particular agency should be in some way connected with the Courts & Tribunals Service so that judicial supervision is available in respect of it. One institution that strikes me as very useful in this connection is the law centres, which were recipients of legal aid in my time. They are an economic way of providing legal assistance—much more economic than the expensive lawyers to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, referred. Of course, it is not very good to have recourse to the inexpensive and cheap lawyers, because you are apt to spend more in the end. This is an excellent idea and requires the Minister to think quite hard about how it should be done.
This brings me to my Amendment 14, which is a slightly different matter. There are various skills available in electronic matters. You may have recourse to the internet and yet not be very sure what you have reached when you get there. There is a risk—it may not be large, but there is a risk—that if there is a court portal for certain things, you may find yourself on a website which is supposed to be the court portal but is actually run by people with a more private interest in litigation than the courts would have. I suggest Amendment 14 for consideration, which would require the Lord Chancellor to make arrangements to try to secure as far as possible that this does not happen to the rather inexpert people who may be using the internet, of which I regard myself as one.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has reminded me that it is well known that the application system for the US ESTA visa waiver scheme has a number of such sites which exact charges, to which people are not liable because of the very modest charge on the official site itself. I will simply point out that HM Courts & Tribunals Service is already working on this sort of thing. There are 18 locations in which it is providing face-to-face digital support, or at least is said to be providing it. The Government have been working this up on the pilot schemes, so it seems to me another ideal opportunity, which the Minister should not neglect, to accept that the Government are actually on the right lines on this.
It would be rather more reassuring if the Bill contained some obligation to provide this kind of support. If it is not there, the Bill will be open to the charge from many people that it is creating a new system without ensuring that people can use it. The means are beginning to be developed by the Government, so I hope that they provide some statutory basis for them.
I make two brief observations. First, I support the introduction of the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and emphasise that HMCTS provides a lot of advice on various areas and, because it is now jointly accountable to the Lord Chief Justice as well as to the Minister, its independence ought to be seen. Secondly, if Amendment 13 is adopted, I would hope that due regard is paid to the provisions of the Welsh Language Act; subsection (5) does not do so properly at present.
My Lords, before my noble and learned friend replies, I gently support the amendment and the way in which it was proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Marks. The policy behind the Bill is clear and sensible: it is to provide easier access, cheaper access and cheaper administration of litigation in certain types of cases. It seems from Clause 2 that the ambit of those cases is broad at the moment. For the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, if we do not provide appropriate assistance—if not in the terms expressly set out in his and his supporters’ amendments, at least in some form—I fear that the good intentions behind the policy and the Bill will lead to the unintended consequence, again spelled out by the noble Lord, of a breakdown of the smooth operation of the system because people either do not understand the system or, having got into it, do not understand the technicalities behind internet access. As others have mentioned, that will lead to delay, expense and frustration within the justice system, which the Bill is surely designed to do away with.
I, for one, am certainly not wedded to any particular wording—like the noble Lord, Lord Marks, I am much more interested in outcomes—but the Government need to apply their mind to providing cost-saving and effective forms of assistance. It is not just to the elderly or people with language difficulties, whom the noble Earl mentioned a moment ago, that we need to offer our help: we need to make the system work well and efficiently and be genuinely part of the justice system.
My Lords, I begin by saying that I entirely agree with noble Lords that digital support for those who want to access online services will be paramount to the effectiveness of the proposed changes in civil procedure. We are of course conscious that not all court and tribunal users have the confidence or ability to use digital channels unaided.
On the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, HMCTS already has an assisted digital strategy in place quite independent of the Bill. For simple support needs, HMCTS staff will talk users through queries over the telephone. In cases of more complex needs, there is provision for face-to-face support, currently being piloted by the Good Things Foundation, which is a charity that specialises in digital inclusion. That means that people can be taken through a digital process step by step. As the noble Lord, Lord Beith, noted, that support is being piloted in 18 locations throughout England and Wales, and in fact will now be rolled out across the country, in order that there is general access to it. We have that digital assistance in place and want to see it developed. We understand the need to ensure that such assistance is available.
We are also seeking to simplify some online forms, essentially by way of a “save and return” process. One frustration encountered by some users of online forms has been that, when they find themselves half way through a form, they decide to consult an appropriate oracle about how to complete the second half of the form but, by that time, the first half has disappeared. Simple steps like that can enable people to use these systems far more easily. We are entirely conscious of the need for such assistance.
I hear what noble Lords say about wanting to see some expression of willingness or intent in the Bill; I would be happy to discuss that further with them before Report. I cannot accept the proposed amendments in their present form—I will not seek to detail why at this stage—but we are willing to discuss an expression of intent that may appear in the Bill. I will leave the matter there at this stage.
Amendment 14, in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, concerns fraudulent activity from persons perhaps pretending to act on behalf of the court. Of course, we take cybersecurity and online fraud extremely serious across all government services. We have cybersecurity professionals involved in the development of all our systems, including new digital services. Those are assessed by the Government Digital Service before they are ever rolled out for public access, so we have a means of ensuring that these systems are fit for purpose. Of course, we understand the importance of building appropriate data security and privacy measures into all such technological systems. Indeed, our systems are subjected to regular checks to ensure that there is no improper access or misuse. HMCTS has developed a risk assessment framework aligned to Government Digital Service standards. My understanding is that, on the basis of the present offerings online, it is unaware of any fraudulent websites claiming to offer access to such sites. Of course, we will maintain vigilance in that regard.
There is perhaps a distinction to be drawn here between some scams and the sort of online scam where somebody claims to be from Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs and invites you to send them your bank account details so that you may be the happy recipient of a tax rebate, but you then discover that your bank has inadvertently been emptied rather than credited. In the context of the court process, we are vigilant against fraud but there is no scope there for that sort of fraud. As I said, we have not encountered fraudulent use, or attempts at fraudulent use, of the websites in so far as we already have certain online channels with HMCTS, so we would not consider it appropriate to accept the noble and learned Lord’s amendment at this stage. That said, I would be happy to discuss further the other amendments in the group. In the meantime, I invite the noble Lord, Lord Marks, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. It appears that we are all committed to seeing a modernised and simple online procedure that enhances, rather than damages, access to justice. We regard it as essential that there should be a statutory commitment to designated assistance for the parties. For that reason, I am extremely gratified to hear the Minister say that he will discuss such a commitment in some form with myself and other noble Lords between now and Report. Of course, we welcome that invitation and will accept it.
I will just say one further thing in answer to the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, about the providers of such assistance. As the Minister said and as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, pointed out, we have in place not only the service provided currently by HM Courts & Tribunals Service but also by such law centres as still exist and by charities such as the Good Things Foundation and the charity mentioned by the noble Earl. I am wary of being too dogmatic about the providers that could by agreement with HM Courts & Tribunals Service provide designated assistance in the future. I hope that, when the Bill leaves this House, we have an acceptable commitment to designated assistance to help litigants in the future. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
Amendment 6 not moved.
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2: “Specified kinds” of proceedings
Amendments 7 and 8 not moved.
9: Clause 2, page 3, line 17, at end insert—
“( ) Regulations may only be made under this section with the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice.”
My Lords, since Second Reading, when I argued in support of these amendments, I have had a meeting with the Minister and, notwithstanding his customary courtesy, I was unable to persuade him of the good sense of these amendments. Listening to his response to today’s debate, it is quite obvious that we cannot expect a Damascene conversion on his part, but did I detect the tiniest shining light—the dawning of a better understanding of why these amendments should be made? If I detected a light, it was only a faint one and I shall certainly not turn the lights off. If we are talking about dawns, nor shall I allow any clouds to obscure my meaning.
We have discussed the issues and I shall not go over those that have already been ventilated in our debate. Lord Justice Briggs’s report is admirable and I continue to support it, but it was a report directed to a small feature of the system of litigation. The Bill, as has been said but is worth repeating, has the potential to cover every single aspect of the administration of civil justice, every single aspect of the administration of family justice and the entire tribunal system. It is difficult to exaggerate the level of interference with the administration of justice in all the areas that the Bill would give to the Lord Chancellor. As I say, the issues have been addressed and I shall not repeat them, but I have heard the Minister say on a number of occasions, “It’s all right because there is the committee with a judicial involvement”. Indeed, in answer to an earlier debate, he pointed out the happy differences between this committee and the Family Procedure Rule Committee, the Civil Procedure Rule Committee and so on. But there are two that he did not grasp and they are the ones that matter.
This is a committee on which the judiciary will be in a minority and it is the first such committee. It will be a committee of which the majority of the members will be appointed by the Lord Chancellor. Let us pause and think about that. The majority will be appointed by the Lord Chancellor and presumably it will be for him to dismiss them if he disagrees with them. That is consistent with the pernicious modern tendency, which I have go on about before, of our being asked to vest greater powers in the Executive—in this case in one Minister. We have become inured to it and it is particularly incongruous in the context of the administration of justice, where, as a matter of constitutional necessity, everyone accepts that the powers should be separate.
Since the constitutional reforms made in the early 2000s, ultimate responsibility for the administration of justice is vested not in the Lord Chancellor or in any other Minister of the Crown, but in the office of the Lord Chief Justice, an office I had the privilege to hold. At the time, none of the judges was urging any such change; we did not want to get rid of the Lord Chancellor. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, was not the Lord Chancellor at that time, but we were very happy with who we had had and did have. It came as a complete surprise to the judiciary, therefore, but it has come, and the consequence is this: a reduction in the responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor for the administration of justice, and a significantly enhanced responsibility of the Lord Chief Justice. He is responsible for what happens in the court system, and that must be understood when we are contemplating this Bill.
With one important exception—important for a reason to which I shall come—under the Bill in its present form, in the discharge of his responsibility for the day-to-day running of the family courts, the civil courts and, to the extent that he has responsibility over the tribunal system, the tribunal courts, the Lord Chief Justice is granted what is pushed as a “privilege” to be consulted by the Lord Chancellor if the Lord Chancellor and his committee have any proposals for change. However much the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, may be frightened of what the Lord Chief Justice may say, a political Lord Chancellor disagreeing with the Lord Chief Justice can simply disregard whatever he may say. It would for years, no doubt, be done with appropriate courtesy—and I hope that, in years to come, it will always be done with appropriate courtesy—but there is no guarantee even of that. But pause here because, after these changes have been implemented, the responsibility if they fail to work will fall not on the Lord Chancellor but on the Lord Chief Justice—even if, when consulted, he or his predecessor argued against them. In those circumstances, limiting the role of the Lord Chief Justice to consultation is absurd.
The change in the relative responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice has been understood and acknowledged in earlier arrangements. Thus, for example, when the question arises of whether court proceedings in England and Wales may be televised—and, if so, which part of such proceedings may be televised and what damage there may be, if any, to the administration of justice depending on what proceedings are televised, or how the administration of justice may be advanced if part of the proceedings are televised—that decision is not vested exclusively in the Minister, who may after all have political reasons for his decision; it requires the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice. On disciplinary proceedings, if a judge has misbehaved or misconducted himself or herself, there is a requirement for concurrence between the holders of the two offices. What is more, the Bill itself, in Clause 6(2), recognises circumstances in which concurrence is appropriate. The amendments proposed to this and the remaining clauses are therefore entirely consistent with a provision in the Bill and with other provisions outside it.
Concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice, and where appropriate the Senior President of Tribunals, is necessary surely when an issue affects the administration of justice on a day-to-day basis. That is what the Bill is about: the administration of justice, day to day. Questions of how proceedings in whichever area of law may be conducted and how they may not; whether, and if so in what circumstances, they must be conducted digitally or on paper; whether and how the interests of litigants who are not proficient are upheld, as we discussed earlier—that is all part of the day-to-day requirement of what goes on in our courts. There is one final consideration, which always seems to me to matter hugely: whether the unsuccessful litigant leaves court satisfied, not of course with the result but with the idea and conviction that he or she has been heard and understood. “Even if the judge got it wrong, he listened to me”, seems a very important part of the administration of justice. These are all questions for the day-to-day search for justice.
In the context of the Bill, which proposes at some stage along the line of history to give wide powers to a Minister, consultation alone is a meaningless handout from the Executive to the judiciary. More importantly, alone it offers no sufficient protection to the citizen against inappropriate Executive interference with the administration of justice. I beg to move.
My Lords, in agreeing with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, given his anticipation of beneficial light emerging from the Front Bench, I caution him that, as so often happens in these matters—particularly when the Government are giving something away, such as consultation—the light at the end of the tunnel ends up being the light of the approaching train. I urge that we temper our enthusiasm for any blandishments from the Government—not that my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench would ever be guilty of offering anything as vulgar as a blandishment.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, has made all the points that need to be made and has made them better than I possibly could. However, if one strips away the words “the Lord Chancellor” and replaces them with the words “Secretary of State”—and Clause 6(2) condescends to do that, because clearly the Lord Chancellor cannot agree with himself and has to agree with his schizophrenic self, the Secretary of State—and if one strips away the ancient legal title and office of Lord Chancellor, one finds that one is in fact dealing with a political Minister in a spending department at the Ministry of Justice and that he or she will be placed under all the pressures of both self-interest and Cabinet responsibility that go with being in a spending department. If it is inconvenient for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to allow the Secretary of State to agree with the Lord Chief Justice, he will disagree with the Lord Chief Justice. We should not be under any misunderstanding about that.
In the what must now be 20 years since the removal of the office of Lord Chancellor as head of the judiciary—and I am standing behind one of the finest exemplars of that office—with that position having now gone to the Lord Chief Justice, the metaphorical gap and indeed the actual distance between the law and Parliament has grown immeasurably. The understanding between the law and those who administer it and politicians has grown immeasurably. One only has to look at the record of some Secretaries of State for Justice who have succeeded my noble and learned friend and who do not have that intimate knowledge of the administration of justice to understand the difficulties and dangers that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, anticipates—and have happened already.
While I support the sensible policy behind the Bill, all kinds of little niggles pop up from time to time which will destroy its purpose. They will make it less beneficial for the public good than it would otherwise be, were the suggestions made in the previous debate by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and in this current debate by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, taken into account. As a supporter of the Bill and the Government, I urge them not to allow themselves to be swept down the river of consultation when the river of agreement is a much safer journey to take.
My Lords, the messages are getting more complicated and conflicting between approaching trains, rivers and nuclear options. Perhaps we should recognise that we are replaying debates in which some of us were involved when it was attempted to abolish the Lord Chancellor overnight and there emerged from that process the system we have now. It is very relevant to the noble Lord’s amendment and to the powerful points he has made in support of it. The change in the role of Lord Chancellor, quite correctly emphasised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, as Secretary of State for the Government as well as Lord Chancellor, stretches forward to influence what we ought to be doing in this legislation.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, had no difficulty in persuading his fellow members of the Constitution Committee of the importance of this issue and of dealing with it properly so that it is quite clear that things cannot be done over the head, or contrary to the wishes of, the Lord Chief Justice. That would help to ameliorate some of the other concerns that we have been dealing with in other amendments to the Bill, such as the breadth of the Bill and the lack of various safeguards. We would all be more reassured if it was recognised that the Lord Chief Justice is not merely consulted but that his or her concurrence has to be obtained.
In earlier discussions, I recall the Minister indicating that he saw it as a significant, almost Rubicon moment—to bring in another analogy—to draw the Lord Chief Justice into a situation where his agreement was required for these things. Was this giving him executive power? Was it bringing him within the political sphere and causing him to make political decisions? My answer is no. The decisions we are talking about here are decisions about the administration of the court system and its fair and efficient operation. They are not the kind of political decisions which the Secretary of State for Justice, who is also the Lord Chancellor, makes.
Ever since that change, we have had to try to maintain the wall which keeps the Lord Chief Justice safe from being drawn into political decisions and, perhaps even more importantly, have had to try to keep the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice on his or her side of it. There have been a number of instances—including, paradoxically, television in courts—which have shown that, to put it at its lightest, the system has not properly bedded down in the way that was intended so that decisions about the fair operation of the courts clearly cannot not be made without the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice. The case which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, has made is very powerful, and I hope the Minister will recognise that this is about not political decisions but the proper role of the Lord Chief Justice.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Beith, I have added my name to the amendment tabled by my noble and learned friend Lord Judge to ensure that the powers which are being conferred on the Lord Chancellor can be exercised only with the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice. My reason for doing so is essentially the same as that of the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and my noble and learned friend Lord Judge: the powers conferred by the Bill are exceptionally broad and there need to be adequate controls.
The Minister’s response before this afternoon essentially amount to, “Don’t worry—there are sufficient means through committees that will ensure that these powers are never used inappropriately, far less abused”, but as my noble and learned friend Lord Judge mentioned, the Lord Chancellor has the power to appoint the majority of the committee. The most effective means of ensuring that these powers are used only in an appropriate manner is to ensure that they may be exercised only with the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice. As the Minister indicated during one of our earlier debates this afternoon, to amend the Bill in this way would considerably help to resolve many of the other defects in it which we have been debating.
My noble and learned friend Lord Judge made a point that is so important that it needs to be repeated: there is nothing novel about legislation requiring the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor. This very Bill, at Clause 6(2), states that the Lord Chancellor’s powers to make regulations relating to the committee may be exercised only,
“with the concurrence of … the Lord Chief Justice and … the Senior President of Tribunals”.
Therefore, I suggest to the Committee that the question is not whether in principle ministerial powers should ever be constrained by a need to obtain the concurrence of the Lord Chief justice but whether that restriction is appropriate in relation to these powers. In my view, such is the breadth of the powers that we are conferring and so intimately do they address the fair administration of justice, which is after all the business of the Lord Chief Justice, that his or her agreement should be needed for their exercise.
Whether it was a blandishment or otherwise, I was very pleased earlier to hear the Minister give a commitment to consider this issue actively before Report. I very much hope that, on Report, the Minister will feel able to table an amendment or amendments to address this issue or, at the very least, to support amendments in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Judge.
Having had the honour of holding the office of Lord Chancellor when the Lord Chancellor was the head of the judiciary, I think it is right for me to say a word or two about the present position.
It is very important to remember that our constitution recognises three arms: the legislature, the Executive and the judiciary. The judiciary is a distinct arm from the Executive. The Executive have responsibilities in relation to the judiciary, and of course the judiciary has responsibilities in relation to the people of this country in a way that is unique. If somebody else is entitled to say, without getting the ultimate agreement of the Lord Chief Justice, “We’re going to alter your procedures in the court. We’ll tell you about it and we’ll consult you but, if you don’t like it, we’ll do it all the same”, that seems to subvert the idea that the Lord Chief Justice is the head of the judiciary. The judiciary must act according to procedures and, if you alter the rules or procedures without his agreement, it seems to me that you subvert his position as the head of the judiciary as distinct from the Executive and the legislature.
Incidentally, I cannot help remarking at this stage that the judiciary has been silenced from having any part in the legislature. I regard that as an extraordinarily retrograde step. I hope that some day it will be put right by a responsible Government and that we will have the very great advantage of hearing in the House of Lords not just all past Lord Chief Justices but the present one as well.
The Lord Chief Justice’s agreement seems to me absolutely essential. Indeed, I would like to feel that he would be the initiator of changes in procedure as a result of committee recommendations. His responsibilities will be encroached upon if these procedures do not work.
My only other remark is that the reference to the Secretary of State in Clause 6(2) is probably to the Secretary of States for Wales, the language of Wales being important in this connection.
My Lords, I hope it will not be inappropriate, in view of the elegant and powerful speeches already made, for me to say these few words. I was a party to the concordat, the importance of which was that it established the new relationship between the arms of government, to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, referred, until the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. I hope it will suffice to say that everything said in support of this amendment seems four-square with what was said in the concordat, indicating when the consent of the Lord Chancellor or that of the Lord Chief Justice would be required. These were heavy burdens that my successors as Lord Chief Justice had to carry in consequence of, first, the concordat and then the Constitutional Reform Act. It would be so easy to allow legislation of this sort to undermine the spirit of the concordat and the provisions of that Act by creating a precedent, which could be pointed to subsequently, indicating that the clear distinctions of relevant situations where the consent of the Lord Chief Justice should be required are not as they were previously understood to be.
My Lords, I simply add that the crowded Benches behind me will support the amendment. We are entirely in sympathy with all that has been said.
My Lords, I begin with a simple point of clarification, although it may be that confusion reigns only in my mind. Where the Bill refers to the Secretary of State, it refers to the Secretary of State for BEIS, because of his responsibilities with regard to employment tribunals. Where it refers to the Lord Chancellor, that reference includes of course the Lord Chancellor’s appointment as Secretary of State for Justice. I say this lest there be any confusion about the two references in the Bill.
As I indicated at Second Reading, we have a number of concerns about the implications of these amendments. The Bill has been drafted precisely to ensure that the existing constitutional balance is protected. I will elaborate on that in light of some observations made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, with reference to Amendment 28, which concerns the Minister’s power to direct the committee to include provision in the online procedure rules to give effect to a specified purpose.
I stress that this is not a novel power, nor would it apply only to the Online Procedure Rule Committee. The same power already features in the legislation which underpins the committees for the Civil Procedure Rules, Family Procedure Rules and Tribunal Procedure Rules. That is because Clause 8 reflects similar provisions in Section 3A of the Civil Procedure Act 1997, Section 79A of the Courts Act 2003 and Part 3 of Schedule 5 to the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. That power was one agreed by the then Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice under the concordat of 2004 and given effect in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. The safety valve within the 2005 Act is Section 5, which confers upon the Lord Chief Justice the statutory right to make a report to Parliament if he is concerned about an issue relating to the administration of justice. I emphasise that this is not a novelty. The provisions of the Bill were drafted to reflect the existing statutory underpinning of the other civil rules committees with regard to civil jurisdiction, family jurisdiction and tribunal procedure.
In turn, Amendments 29 and 30 seek to ensure that the Lord Chief Justice concurs before the Lord Chancellor can make regulations under Clause 9. Clause 9 requires consultation with both the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals, the latter in the context of tribunal procedure. Again, we suggest that this is as it should be. It is anticipated that, as in the past, these regulations would be used to make minor revisions to legislation; for example, to regularise and modernise terminology to match that in the new rules and ensure that the rules operate as intended. In other words, they will be used to make operability amendments. It is in these circumstances that consultation is considered to be the appropriate approach.
Amendments 9 and 12 would require the Lord Chancellor or Secretary of State to seek the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice when specifying proceedings which are to be subject to the Online Procedure Rules. I would go so far as to say that I am sympathetic to concerns from your Lordships about the nature of the proceedings which may become subject to the online procedure and the consequences that may have for the administration of justice. Therefore, I see there are grounds for distinguishing that case from those I have just mentioned. It is in these circumstances that, as I indicated earlier, I would be happy to discuss this matter further with noble Lords before Report. I appreciate the level of concern expressed about that point and wish to address it further with noble Lords with regard to the issue raised in the context of Amendments 9 and 12. However, I hope noble Lords will appreciate that I cannot go further on that matter at the Dispatch Box at this stage. In the present circumstances, I do not know whether that counts as a train, a nuclear explosion or a light at the end of the tunnel, but whatever analogy might be drawn, I invite noble Lords not to press their amendments at this stage.
My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate. It has been short, but it matters. Perhaps I may answer two points made by the Minister. First, the difference between this committee and the committees to which he referred is that there is a majority of judicial members on all of them, whereas this committee has a majority appointed by the Lord Chancellor. That is a huge difference.
Secondly, although Section 5 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 gives the Lord Chief Justice the right to send a letter to Parliament expressing his concerns, I am willing to tell the Committee that there were occasions when I felt like writing such a letter, but it seemed to me that the first thing such a letter would do was to enmesh the Lord Chief Justice in a political quarrel. If nothing else, I could have seen the Government looking after the Lord Chancellor’s interests and therefore objecting to the Lord Chief Justice’s letter. I could see some Oppositions trying to twist the Government’s tail, thinking that they would support the Lord Chief Justice. The whole idea of that was a sop, because the reality is that if you use your nuclear option, you do not just blow up everybody else; you blow up yourself and your own case.
Subject to those two matters, and to further discussion with the Minister, for the time being I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 9 withdrawn.
Clause 2 agreed.
Clause 3: Provision supplementing section 1
Amendments 10 to 12 not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
Amendments 13 and 14 not moved.
Clause 4: The Online Procedure Rule Committee
15: Clause 4, page 4, line 16, leave out paragraph (c) and insert—
“(c) one of each of the following—(i) a barrister in England and Wales, and(ii) a solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales, and(iii) a legal executive, and(iv) a magistrate of England and Walesappointed to the Committee by the Lord Chancellor.”
My Lords, this amendment would extend somewhat the involvement in the committee that the Lord Chancellor will appoint across the relevant professions and service. It seems sensible to reflect the breadth of the legal service and the legal community. It would not be hugely burdensome in numbers. It seems to make sense. I hope the Minister will feel able, if not today then subsequently, to accept that this would be desirable.
I do not think I need to elaborate. The amendments are clear enough about the intention and the numbers to be involved. I hope the Minister will at least look at this again and recognise that it is in the interests of the changes that are about to be made to accept these suggestions. I beg to move.
I will make just one small comment. If the appointments of these additional people are in the hands of the Lord Chancellor, he will end up with a majority of six to two on the committee. If the amendments are to be pursued, I respectfully ask that the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice to the appointment should be required.
With the utmost respect to my predecessor, it would be usual for a magistrate to be appointed by the Lord Chief Justice rather than the Lord Chancellor. That would slightly affect the majority, but otherwise I agree with the points made.
My Lords, it appears that we might avoid both potential problems if we retain the present membership of the proposed committee. Before I turn to the detail of the amendments, it may be helpful if I make some general remarks about the committee’s composition. We certainly support the need for a small, focused and agile committee responsible for making new court rules that are simple, tailored for the benefit of ordinary users and, therefore, understandable. In his final review of the civil justice system in 2016, Lord Justice Briggs as he then was anticipated—I accept—a very differently constituted committee of experts from across various disciplines reflecting users’ needs. A smaller committee allows the standing members to increase and adapt their membership quite easily every time they consider a different topic. That therefore allows them access to a greater spread of expertise and to ensure the rules are made by those who have an understanding of how they are most suited to the user.
The purpose of Amendment 15 from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, is to add legally qualified members, or members with legal experience, to the committee. As I have indicated, we consider that there is considerable benefit in beginning with a small committee, but one where the membership and expertise can be adapted over time. We consider that adopting the amendment would create issues about who is appointing the membership of the committee and whether there was a disproportionate power of appointment between the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice.
I remind noble Lords that the intention is that the online procedure will apply in the first instance to civil money claims up to the value of £25,000, but over time we of course want to widen the procedure’s scope so that it covers the civil procedures, potentially including family and tribunal proceedings. It would be difficult to see the value of insisting on an expanded legal membership at this stage without first gauging the overall value that could be addressed by bringing in specific experts in the area of specific proceedings being considered. In addition, as I said, Clause 6 would allow for the committee’s composition to be changed to incorporate particular experts or disciplines and particular areas of expertise if or when the committee came to address such issues as tribunal jurisdictions or some forms of family jurisdiction.
For similar reasons, we are not persuaded of the need for Amendments 16 and 17, which seek to add an additional member with IT expertise. Again, the argument is the same. Under Clause 6, the committee will have the ability to bring in additional expertise as and when it requires it, and that flexibility is seen as a considerable benefit.
In Amendment 18, the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, seeks to ensure a gender balance on the committee. Of course we support the wider aim of ensuring greater diversity among all senior appointments to public bodies but, to be truly effective, public bodies must bring together a mix of people with different skills, experience and backgrounds. The obligation with regard to appointment is always guided by the code of practice of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, which sets out the design principles and procedures for appointments with diversity in mind, including gender diversity. It is by these means that we can preserve accountability for diversity. That process is monitored by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and is subject to a published report each year. We are certainly not complacent about the idea of gender representation at all levels on all committees, but we think it better that it is seen through the wider lens of the Equality Act, which protects a broader range of groups, not just gender. At this stage, we are not inclined to accept that there should be an express provision on gender balance.
Amendments 20 and 21 deal with the number of committee members required to agree the rule changes. Amendment 21 from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, would increase the number needed from three to five, and that would perhaps be a consequence of an extended membership. Amendment 20 from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, would require a simple majority with regard to matters, rather than just the current number of three. I can see that there may be an advantage in having some flexibility here, if we look forward to the point where the committee decides to exercise the powers under Clause 6 and extend the numbers in the committee to embrace further areas of expertise. I would like to give further consideration to that point in light of that, because it seems that underlying this there is a point that we should address before Report. With that, I invite noble Lords not to press their amendments at this stage.
Does the Minister accept the possibility that if there is not a requirement to reflect gender balance, there should at least be a requirement to report on it periodically, as part of the provision of the Bill?
Respectfully, it appears that there is already statutory provision for just such a report, because the appointments will be monitored by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, who will make an annual report for that very reason.
Amendment 15 withdrawn.
Amendments 16 to 18 not moved.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5 agreed.
Clause 6: Power to change certain requirements relating to the Committee
19: Clause 6, page 7, line 17, leave out “negative” and insert “affirmative”
My Lords, this is a fairly simple amendment requiring there to be an affirmative resolution, rather than a negative one. We are perhaps overdone with negative procedures. I suggest that this is an important area which should be subject to the affirmative process instead of the negative one.
My Lords, might I be permitted to respond with equal brevity to the noble Lord’s proposed amendment? Our concern is that this should be a small committee which has the ability pursuant to Clause 6, for example, to extend its membership to other areas of expertise, and that it should be able to move relatively swiftly to do that. That is why, in this area and others covered by amendments including Amendments 26 and 27, we embrace the negative procedure. We are concerned that, if we introduced the affirmative procedure, it would be necessary to take the matter through both Houses of Parliament, with the potential for significant delay from time to time. In fact, we simply want to effect new draft rules following consultation with the Lord Chief Justice. Regarding the consultation provisions as well, we suggest that the negative and not the affirmative procedure is appropriate here.
I hope the noble Lord does not consider that, in responding briefly, I am not conscious of the importance of his point, but we feel that our answer is as short as his proposal—if I can put in those terms. I invite him to withdraw his amendment.
Amendment 19 withdrawn.
Clause 6 agreed.
Clause 7: Making Online Procedure Rules
20: Clause 7, page 7, line 24, leave out “at least three” and insert “a majority of”
My Lords, if I may say a word out of turn, I am grateful to the Minister for what he said about my Amendment 20 and for saying that he will consult about agreeing something along its lines. I also want to make a point about Amendment 15, which we have also passed, which is that magistrates are represented under statute, under the other rule-based committees.
I will briefly clarify the position for the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. I was not undertaking to consult to agree, but to give further consideration to the matter before Report.
Amendment 20 not moved.
Amendment 21 not moved.
22: Clause 7, page 7, line 30, at end insert—
“(za) must be piloted by the Government in a period determined by the Online Procedure Rule Committee before they may be fully and permanently implemented,”
My Lords, there are two or three amendments in this group that look to the Government to pilot the processes embodied in the Bill. That seems a sensible way of dealing with these changes. Amendment 24 would require the Minister to publish a written statement on the progress and findings of the pilot scheme. These are major changes in our legal system, so it is necessary to look carefully at how they are working before deciding that they will remain part of the system. This is a major change, and it would help if the Government accepted the notion that progress will be reviewed and an opportunity given to consider how it is working. Further, the procedure should be an affirmative resolution.
My Lords, our Amendments 31 to 33 in this group require a statutory review between three and four years from the date on which the Bill becomes law. They also require a report to Parliament from the appropriate Minister, prepared in consultation with the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals, both of whom will be able to contribute independently to the report, should they wish to. The Minister’s answer to these suggestions to date has been that the Government will carry out a post-legislative review, so there is no need to incorporate a requirement for such a review into the Bill. Once again, I regret that we do not agree. Non-statutory promises have a nasty habit of being fulfilled well outside the time limits promised. Indeed, such reviews often seem to have as many delays as Crossrail. Statutory time limits, while not fool-proof, at least concentrate the minds of Ministers and officials. Furthermore, without further primary legislation, they do not bind future Governments. In any case, the requirement to review and report guarantees a certain thoroughness to the review and resulting report that might not otherwise have existed.
We regard as particularly important the requirement for the Government to consult the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals in preparing the report and to have the opportunity to report to Parliament. That will guarantee that a judicial perspective is brought to bear on the review and formal report to Parliament. In this case, we regard the combination of judicial and political input as very important. Reviewing the operation of the legislation makes that combination important, as with making the changes and decisions that we discussed in the group of the amendments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. We also support the amendments in this group on further piloting these online procedures. Careful piloting and a staged introduction could avoid costly mistakes and improve the procedures as they are developed. Both providers and users will be able to see and report on what works and does not.
I first turn to Amendments 22 to 24, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and address the issue that the rules should be piloted by the Online Procedure Rule Committee before they come into effect. I will then come on to Amendments 31 to 33, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and supported by the noble Lords, Lord Beith and Lord Pannick, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, that when services are introduced, they are already subject to ongoing testing. HMCTS is rapidly testing and adapting new online services, based on user feedback and service data. That is important because it ensures flexibility and improvements in practice and procedures that enhance access to justice. Piloted online services cannot be rolled out to the public more widely without such rigorous independent assessment carried out by the Government Digital Service, and then confirmation that they are fit for purpose. In addition, some projects are also being more formally evaluated through their development by HMCTS itself.
Reference was made to a number of piloted measures in the existing digital portal for debt actions. The difficulty is that, if we accept measures of the kind proposed in these amendments, we will add a layer of bureaucracy to the rule-making process beyond current practice, thereby reducing the flexibility to respond to user needs and technological changes. The Bill permits the use of practice directions, which can support projects through development before formal rules are set out in statute, so one does not have to go to a formal set of rules immediately; one can simply have a practice direction that assists the piloting of particular projects.
I mentioned before the example of online civil money claims and the pilot that went live in March 2019, which is underpinned by practice directions that require the consent of the Master of the Rolls and the appropriate Minister. Such a project worked closely with the judicial sub-committee to develop the pilot. I emphasise that there is already a clear process in place through which such proposed rules are tested, piloted and reviewed. To that extent, we consider Amendment 22 unnecessary.
Amendment 23 would again limit the flexibility of the OPRC to make the small, minor changes required to respond quickly to changes in user needs or perhaps new technology. It would add time and consequently cost to the development of the online process. We do not consider it appropriate to go down that route.
Amendment 24 would require us to publish six-monthly reports. We regard that as simply unmanageable given the number of pilots across the services that we are in the course of transforming. Again, there is the issue of cost, so we are not persuaded of the need for such steps to be taken.
Amendments 31, 32 and 33 would place in the Bill a requirement for a formal review of the Act to which the Lord Chief Justice and Senior President of Tribunals were able to contribute independently. Clearly, reviewing legislation which has been passed by this House is of great importance. That is precisely why the Government already require departments to carry out post-legislative scrutiny of all Acts within three to five years after Royal Assent. We therefore consider this amendment unnecessary because post-legislative scrutiny of this legislation will be conducted—I emphasise, will be conducted—within that timescale.
Regarding the reference to the Lord Chief Justice and Senior President of Tribunals, of course, their views are incredibly important and are taken seriously. There would be no question of us laying a report on this or other courts legislation without taking account of their opinions. Again, we consider the amendments unnecessary, understanding the importance of what underpins and has prompted them. I hope that, with these assurances, noble Lords will accept that the amendments are unnecessary and I invite them not to press them.
My Lords, having listened to the Minister, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 22 withdrawn.
Amendments 23 to 25 not moved.
Clause 7 agreed.
Clause 8: Power to require rules to be made
Amendments 26 to 28 not moved.
Clause 8 agreed.
Clause 9: Power to make amendments in relation to Online Procedure Rules
Amendments 29 and 30 not moved.
Clause 9 agreed.
Amendment 31 not moved.
Clauses 10 to 12 agreed.
Clause 13: Interpretation
Amendments 32 and 33 not moved.
Clause 13 agreed.
Clause 14 agreed.
Schedule 1 agreed.
Schedule 2: Amendments relating to the online procedure in courts and tribunals
34: Schedule 2, page 18, line 41, leave out paragraph 5
My Lords, I approach this amendment with some trepidation, but I shall explain it in this way. It removes paragraph 5 of Schedule 2 to the Bill, which itself provides for the omission of Clause 7(1); namely, the requirement for the Online Procedure Rule Committee to consult such persons as it considers appropriate and to hold meetings unless inexpedient to do so.
The amendment was originally incorporated in the Prisons and Courts Bill and was intended to reflect a prospective amendment to the Civil Procedure Act 1997 made by the Courts Act 2003 in an attempt to regularise practice between committees across civil, family and tribunal jurisdictions and the Online Procedure Rule Committee. That measure has not been implemented so far and has no direct relevance to this Bill. In simple terms, the provision that we are removing does not add value to the current Bill and should be removed—as it says in my note—to avoid misunderstanding.
Is the original ever intended to be implemented?
That is not a question that I am able to answer now because I cannot foresee the future, but I shall take further instruction on the matter and write to the noble Lord on the current position. I beg to move.
Amendment 34 agreed.
Schedule 2, as amended, agreed.
Bill reported with an amendment.