The government’s Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill, described as “wafer thin” by Labour MP and barrister Yasmin Qureshi, has cleared its penultimate stage in Parliament.
Bob Neill, Conservative MP and chair of the justice select committee, said the bill – which will enable certain judicial tasks to be delegated to legally qualified court staff – would save £6m and was “right and balanced”.
Speaking at last week’s report stage and third reading in the House of Commons, Mr Neill described the bill as “entirely sensible”, arguing that it was “a logical follow-on from the Briggs report” and necessary to modernise the courts.
He said it reflected “in particular the views of the senior judiciary” and had been warmly welcomed by former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas.
Mr Neill said it was “inconceivable” that any Lord Chief Justice would agree to the delegation of power to a non-legal member of staff which put the interests of justice at risk.
“I never sat as a deputy district judge… in civil matters, but I have many friends who do, and a great deal of what is called box work, with which at least some on the Treasury bench will be familiar, was of a very administrative kind.
“We expect the district judges in a busy county court to deal with that, whereas it seems perfectly reasonable for many of these matters, which are often of a very interlocutory nature, to be dealt with by an experienced member of court staff who has been in the service for many years.
“We are not talking about the ultimate determination of the case in any of these matters.”
Ms Qureshi said the bill sought “justice on the cheap”, delegating judicial powers to “non-independent” courts and tribunal staff.
The MP repeated her call for the “backstop protection” of a statutory right to reconsideration to be inserted into the bill, to give “stronger protection” to the right to fair trial. Under the bill, this will be subject to the views of the various procedural rule committees.
She withdrew her first amendment, which would have made regulations under the bill subject to the affirmative procedure in Parliament.
A Labour amendment requiring authorised court staff using the new powers to be solicitors, barristers or chartered legal executives with at least three years’ post-qualification experience was defeated by 308 votes to 246.
A further amendment, which would have given people subject to decisions under delegated powers a statutory right to judicial reconsideration, was voted down by 312 votes to 243.
Opening the debate on the third reading, justice minister Lucy Frazer said: “This is a small and technical bill, but it is a key component of our £1bn programme of reform that will see our courts and tribunals modernised for the 21st century and, importantly, make access to justice quicker and easier for all.
“It is also the first step in the legislation that will underpin these reforms, as we will introduce further courts legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.
“This bill will free up judges from the most routine tasks by enabling appropriately qualified and experienced staff in courts and tribunals to carry out a wider range of judicial functions than they can at present.”
Opposing the bill at third reading, Labour MP Imran Hussein said the bill was a “poor replacement for what should have been a thorough bill filled with real courts reform”.
He went on: “Any legal decision made in our courts must be open to review and appeal. It is a fundamental principle of the rule of law, and the decisions made by authorised staff should be no different, yet the bill does not uphold that spirit by failing to make available a statutory right to reconsideration.
“In failing to provide that statutory right, the government have undermined the expectation of the public that legal decisions will be made by a judge or can be reviewed by a judge, and they have undermined our courts and judicial system in the process.”
However, the bill passed its third reading by 302 votes to 233. It will now enter ‘ping pong’ – where any amendments made in the Commons have to be agreed by Lords – before receiving Royal Assent.
The bill covers just a portion of the reforms needed to implement the court modernisation programme that were included in the Prisons and Courts Bill that was scrapped because of the 2017 general election.
Asked by Mr Neill in Parliament yesterday about the “pressing need to introduce the remaining primary legislation necessary to underpin the rest of Sir Michael Briggs’ reforms”, Lord Chancellor David Gauke said: “I share the desire… to do that when parliamentary time allows. Of course, there are currently some pressures on parliamentary time.”