Legislation to allow judges to delegate tasks to court staff was announced by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) yesterday as it emerged that the Civil Procedure Rule Committee (CPRC) has already begun looking at the issue.
Described as “the first step in legislation to modernise courts and tribunals across the country”, it will not, however, introduce the provisions required to enable digital services like the online court – which had been part of last year’s pre-election Prisons and Courts Bill.
The MoJ said the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill “will increase efficiency by allowing greater flexibility to deploy the right judge to the right case”.
They will also be deployed across jurisdictions, “allowing judges to gain experience of different types of cases, helping with their career progression”.
The MoJ continued: “Appropriately qualified and experienced court and tribunal staff – authorised by the judiciary, and working under judicial supervision – will also be able to deal with routine matters, freeing up judges’ time to focus their expertise on matters that need it most.”
Justice minister Lucy Frazer said: “This bill supports our fundamental transformation of the justice system, making courts easier to use, more efficient and fit for the digital age.
“By enabling judges to hear cases in different courts and tribunals, and giving court staff powers to deal with routine issues, we will make our courts more efficient and effective, while making better use of taxpayer’s money.
“Our judiciary are highly valued and we want to make sure judges’ time and expertise is being used where and when it is most needed.”
The MoJ said it expected authorised staff to carry out “some of the more straightforward judicial functions, which includes tasks like issuing a summons, taking a plea, extending time for service of applications, or considering applications for variations of directions made in private or public law cases”.
Decisions on which powers authorised staff may carry out will be made by the various procedure rule committees.
By coincidence, the papers from the March meeting of the CPRC were published yesterday and included details of a discussion on the use of case officers.
Lord Justice Coulson, who was chairing the meeting as deputy head of civil justice, noted that although the question of case officers, and delegation of more routine work to non-judicial staff, was an express element of the reform proposals and the Briggs report, “it is surprising to see how little has been done”.
The minutes of the meeting recorded: “There are difficulties in the civil jurisdiction, but in conversations with HMCTS including with the CEO Susan Acland-Hood it would seem little progress has been made.
“Having wrestled with the problem, the chair thought that the judiciary should make the first move… He thought that making the first proposals will give the CPRC more control.”
The committee has set up a working group that will start by looking a Practice Direction 2E – “Jurisdiction of the county court that may be exercised by a legal adviser” – to see if any of those provisions can have restrictions removed, or modified.