Chairman of the Bar, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, commented on today’s Joint Statement from the Ministry of Justice, Lord Chief Justice and Senior President of Tribunals, Transforming our Justice System: “The Joint Statement, Transforming our Justice System, provides a bold and radical vision from the Government, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals with the aim of maintaining and enhancing the strength and reputation of our justice system both at home and abroad. The central tenet of the statement, ‘justice for everyone’, resonates strongly with the Bar Council and the barristers it represents.
“The Joint Statement is at a very high level and it will be necessary to understand the detail behind these proposals. The challenges are threefold: first, around how this broad vision of a justice system for the future becomes a reality; secondly, in ensuring that the necessary investment of finance, time and people, is available, and continues to be available to realise this laudable vision; and thirdly, ensuring that while embracing innovation and change we do not inadvertently undermine the fundamentals of what has made our justice system among the best in the world, but instead enhance these.
“The barristers’ profession is always willing to embrace new technology in the interests of improving and preserving our justice system and to find suitable efficiencies that do not stand in the way of access to justice. The £270m investment in IT for the criminal courts, which the report highlights, is essential investment in our justice system. It is also encouraging that the Government acknowledges the potential IT challenges some people, particularly older and vulnerable people, may face with digitisation.
“Efforts to make our justice system a more suitable environment for victims and vulnerable witnesses is a step in the right direction. The Bar has been at the forefront of producing special training for considering the needs of vulnerable witnesses in the criminal justice system and is in the process of rolling out targeted training for the Bar.
“We welcome the repeated commitment by the Government to invest more than £700m to modernise the courts and tribunals. However, we continue to have serious concerns around plans to introduce online courts for all civil money claims by 2020. There is a real risk of entrenching a two-tier justice system, providing a different type of justice to claimants and defendants, depending upon the size of the money claims in dispute. Individuals using the proposed, largely “lawyerless”, online court process could easily find themselves in litigation with big organisations which can afford to hire their own legal teams. More widely, while we see many benefits in moving more and more of the court processes to a digital format, and support this, the reality occasionally strays from the vision.
“It is important, when looking at this blue print for a justice system which meets the needs of all, to also focus on the continued impact of recent court fee increases, which are pricing people out of pursuing valid claims before the civil courts and tribunals.
“Overall, for the Ministry of Justice to succeed in achieving its aims it is essential there is good consultation with those working in the justice sector as well as rigorous piloting and trialling of any new initiatives. For what amounts to a major change programme, there needs to be a high level of good quality communication with the legal professions, the judiciary and others who play a key role in delivering our world-class justice system. We all share the same objectives of improving justice for all and will need to work collaboratively.
“The Bar Council entirely supports the aim of ensuring that the judiciary and legal professions are chosen from the widest possible talent pool which includes women, those from the BAME community and those from a socially disadvantaged background. This has been an important ambition of ours for some time. The Bar Council has already developed a number of initiatives aimed at increasing the diversity in the judiciary and will work with the Ministry of Justice and other organisations to further this aim.”