Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Diversity in the Judiciary

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For a number of years, it has been accepted that there should be greater diversity among the judiciary. The gender and ethnicity of the judiciary should broadly reflect the gender and ethnicity of the population as a whole. There has been considerable effort to more the judiciary away from their ‘white, male, upper middle class’ image.

The present Lord Chief Justice is determined that progress towards a more balanced judiciary should be advanced. The latest Judicial Diversity Statistics, published in July 2016, indicate that some progress has been made.

The headline findings are that in April 2016:

  • The number of woman Court of Appeal Judges remains the same as last year at eight out of 39 (21 per cent).
  • Twenty two out of 106 High Court Judges are women (21 per cent). In April 2015 the number was 21 (20 per cent).
  • In the courts the percentage of female judges has increased from April 2015 to April 2016 from 25% to 28%. In tribunals it remained stable at 45%.
  • The number of female Circuit Judges increased from 146 in April 2015 to 160 in April 2016 (from 23 per cent to 26 per cent)
  • More than half (51 per cent) of the 85 court judges who are under 40 years of age are women (53% last year). In tribunals, 64 per cent of the 56 judges under 40 are women (56% last year)
  • The percentage of judges who identify as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME)is 5% in courts (6% last year), and in tribunals 9% (stable since 2015). This is higher for judges under 40 – 8% (6% last year) for courts and 14% (15% last year) for tribunals.
  • A third (34%, compared with 36% in 2015) of court judges and two thirds (65%, compared with 67% in 2015) of tribunal judges are from non-barrister backgrounds. Judges in lower courts more likely to come from a non-barrister background.

The conclusions that may be drawn from these findings is that some progress has been made in the appointment of women as judges; but the numbers of BAME judges remain low.

In order to encourage applications, particularly from women and BAME candidates, the Judges Council has established a Judicial Diversity Committee, which undertakes different events and initiatives to encourage a wider range of candidates to apply for judicial appointment. They have recently published their first report.

Their work includes:

  • sponsoring networking events;
  • running a judicial shadowing programme;
  • appointing judicial role models from the existing bench to provide advice and guidance to potential applicants.

One pilot initiative relates to developing ways to encouraging applications for appointment to the High Court bench from those who have not had practice experience as a barrister, including leading academics.

To see the Judicial Diversity Statistics, go to https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/judicial-diversity-statistics-2016-2.pdf.

The report of the Judicial Diversity Committee is at https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/judicial-diversity-committee-progress-report-13-16.pdf

Written by lwtmp

September 23, 2016 at 12:33 pm

Fees in Immigration and Asylum appeals: Government proposals

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In May 2016, I noted here that the Government had published a consultation paper on proposals for new fees, to be charged in cases being brought to the Immigration and Appeals Chambers of both the First Tier and Upper Tier Tribunal.

The fees were to be set at a level which would enable the Government to recover the full cost of running those tribunals. Huge increases were proposed.

As might be anticipated, the overwhelming number of those responding to the Consultation were against these proposed changes, arguing that the new fees would act as a significant barrier to access to justice in such cases.

As might also be anticipated, the Government has – in the main – not been persuaded by the arguments made against the proposed fee increases.

In its response to the consultation, published in September 2016, the Government has announced that it will be proceeding with the proposed changes as soon as possible, though the precise dates are not yet determined.

For the full summary of responses to the consultation and the Government statement on polucy development, see https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/553387/proposals-imm-asylum-chamber-consultation-response.pdf

 

Written by lwtmp

September 23, 2016 at 10:38 am

Posted in chapter 6

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Review of the structure of the civil courts

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The review of the structure of the civil courts, undertaken at great speed and efficiency by Lord Justice Briggs, was published on 27 July 2016.

Although commissioned by the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls rather than by Government Ministers, there are strong reasons to believe that its recommendations will be taken forward by Government. The one uncertainty is how far the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of Justice, Lynne Truss MP, will focus on an initiative originally supported by her predecessor, Michael Gove MP.

The recommendation that has grabbed most public attention so far relates to the recommendation for The Online Court. 

This would be a new court, designed to be used by people with minimum assistance from lawyers, with its own set of user-friendly rules. It is anticipated that it will eventually become the compulsory forum for resolving cases within its jurisdiction. It should start by  dealing with straightforward money claims valued at up to £25,000.

The review makes recommendations about how to help people who need assistance with online systems.

It is also provided that complex and important cases, even of low monetary value, should be able to be transferred upwards to higher courts.

Briggs also recommends important changes to who should be undertaking the work of the courts. Judicial resources should be made more readily available by the creation of Case Officers.

These would be a senior body of court lawyers and other officials who can assist with certain functions currently carried out by judges, such as paperwork and uncontentious matters. They would be trained and  supervised by judges. Their decisions would be subject to reconsideration by judges on request by a party. They would operate independently of government when exercising their functions.

Thirdly Briggs deals with the thorny problem of the Enforcement of Judgments and Orders.

He recommends that there should be a single court as the default court for the enforcement of the judgments and orders of all the civil courts (including the new Online Court). This should be the County Court, but there would need to be a permeable membrane allowing appropriate enforcement issues to be transferred to the High Court, and special provision for the enforcement of arbitration awards, in accordance with current practice and procedure.

He wants to see all enforcement procedures being digitised, centralised and rationalised.

Fourth, Briggs is keen to promote Mediation/ADR.

This has been on the agenda for years. In this context he recommends the re-establishment of a court-based out of hours private mediation service in County Court hearing centres prepared to participate, along the lines of the service which existed prior to the establishment and then termination of the National Mediation Helpline. My view is that all county court hearing centres should be required to offer this; but Briggs clearly felt this was a step too far at this stage.

Future issues

Briggs also sets out a number of proposals for further restructuring of the civil courts. These include:

  1. a review of High Court divisions;
  2. a single portal for the issue of all civil proceedings, leading to the eventual abolition of District Registries;
  3. a review of whether procedural changes in the Court of Appeal should be applied to appeals to the High Court and to Circuit Judges in the County Court;
  4. the possible convergence of Employment tribunals and the Employment Appeal tribunal with the county court;
  5. he would like to see the Family Court being given a shared jurisdiction (with the Chancery Division and the County Court) for dealing with Inheritance Act disputes and disputes  about the co-ownership of homes.

Announcements about the Government’s response to these recommendations and how they fit into the current programme of reform of the court estate will be noted here in due course.

Detail about the Briggs review can be found at https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/civil-courts-structure-review/civil-courts-structure-review-ccsr-final-report-published/civil-courts-structure-review-final-report-press-notice/

Unregulated providers of legal services

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Not all legal services are provided by lawyers or legal executives who are regulated by their professional bodies. There is a group of legal service providers who are not authorised and regulated under any legal sector specific legislation, but who  are providing legal services for profit and as a significant focus of their work.

The Legal Services Board has recently (June 2016) published research on the work of this sector of the legal service market.  The research looked in detail at will-writing, online divorce and intellectual property.

The Key Findings of the research were:

  1. For profit unregulated providers make up a small proportion of the legal services market. In the individual legal needs survey, they represented 4.5-5.5% of cases in which consumers paid for advice or representation.
  2. In contrast, not for profit providers, most of whom will be unregulated, accounted for approximately 37% of all legal problems where advice was sought.
  3. Benefits for consumers include lower prices and greater price transparency compared to regulated providers, innovation and service differentiation, and competitive impact on regulated providers.
  4. The main risks to consumers relate to consumers not making informed choices and misleading advertising claims. The research did not assess the technical quality of work.
  5. Consumer satisfaction with customer service is broadly comparable across regulated and unregulated providers – 84% versus 81% respectively.
  6. More than half of consumers who instruct for profit unregulated providers are aware of their regulatory status. Of those who don’t check, a significant proportion do not do so because they assume that they are regulated.
  7. There is a limited potential market for voluntary regulation beyond existing trade associations given the size of the market and low appetite for such initiatives among providers.

For the time being, at least, the policy conclusions for the Legal Services Board are that

  1. The for profit unregulated sector is smaller than expected, although in some segments these providers have gained a significant market share.
  2. Based on the evidence of benefits and risks to consumers and limited potential market for voluntary regulation beyond existing trade associations, the LSB will monitor developments but will not pursue a voluntary arrangement under the Legal Services Act.
  3. Consumers should be encouraged to check whether or not providers are regulated.

In other words no active intervention for the moment.

Notwithstanding these broad conclusions, the research did look more closely at the work of for profit unregulated providers in three areas: will-writing; divorce; and intellectual property, where not insignificant amounts of legal services work was being undertaken by unregulated providers – around 10% of the work. The dominance in the area of divorce by 5 on-line companies offering very cheap services can be particularly noted.

My guess is that, so long as the unregulated sector provides cost-effective services, with which consumers are satisfied, the lack of regulation will continue. But if there is a highly publicised scandal, then the regulatory context will change.

For the research go to https://research.legalservicesboard.org.uk/wp-content/media/Economic-insight-in-depth-unregulated-research.pdf

Written by lwtmp

July 17, 2016 at 9:53 am

Regulating Alternative Business Structures

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One of the last Ministerial actions taken by Lord Faulks, before he decided to leave the Government, was to publish a very important consultation on how Alternative Business Structures (ABS) should be regulated.

On 30 November 2015, the Government published, ‘A Better Deal: boosting competition to bring down bills for families and firms’ which set out the Government’s approach to encouraging open and competitive markets, for the benefit of the UK economy and UK consumers. A key part of the Government’s approach is to ensure that the statutory frameworks underpinning regulatory regimes allow regulators to regulate in a way that is proportionate and promotes competition and innovation.

As the legal services market is not only an important contributor to the UK economy, but also to ensuring individuals’ and companies’ access to justice, the Government seeks to develop a strong, independent and competitive legal services market, which will promote consumer choice and quality services at lower prices, ensuring greater access to justice for all.

The Better Deal document included a pledge to consult on two particular matters:

  1. making changes to the regulatory framework for legal services to remove barriers to market entry, and regulatory burdens on, Alternative Business Structures in legal services, and
  2. making legal services regulators independent from professional representative bodies.

The second of these is delayed, pending the final report from the Competition and Markets Authority – about which I have written separately.

However on 7 July 2016, the Government published a Consultation Paper on what changes might be needed to the regulation of ABSs.

Background

Since 2010, when Alternative Business Structures were first licensed to provide legal services, over 600 ABS firms have entered the market. According to the Government:

The introduction of ABS businesses, particularly those that have access to external investment and business and commercial expertise, has benefited the market more widely. Recent research has indicated that ABS firms are more likely to be innovative than other regulated legal services firms. These new, innovative providers have increased competition in the market, which [the Government believes] encourages a wider variety of legal services in the market that are more accessible and affordable to consumers.

As a result of concerns raised at the time about the potential risks of new and unknown business models, the legislative framework for the regulation of ABS businesses, set out in the Legal Services Act 2007, is more onerous and prescriptive than that for traditional law firms.

Six years on, experience suggests that ABS businesses have not been shown to attract any greater regulatory risk than traditional law firms. In consequence,  the Legal Services Board and front-line regulators suggest that the current statutory requirements act as a deterrent and an unnecessary barrier to firms wanting to change their current business model to a more innovative one, as well as to new businesses considering entering the market.

The proposals

The proposals set out in the consultation aim to enable legal services regulators to reduce regulatory burdens on ABS, while taking a more effective risk-based approach to regulation. The proposals are very technical in nature. The following summary is set out in Legal Futures.

  • ABSs should not have to provide reserved legal activities from a practising address in England and Wales. The consultation said this restriction can prevent online businesses being licensed as ABSs, while traditional firms are not required to do reserved work.
  • ABS licensing authorities should be able to make their own rules around ABS ownership, in line with guidance to be provided by the LSB. The consultation said the current “inflexible” rules on which non-lawyers need to be investigated before assuming ownership of an ABS leads to unnecessary checks on some people who have no real control or influence over an ABS, but others who should be checked fall outside the definitions set out in the Act.
  • Abolishing the requirement to consider whether an ABS applicant explicitly meets the regulatory objective of improving access to justice. There is no equivalent on non-ABS firms or individuals, while all the regulators and licensing authorities are separately under an obligation to improve access to justice anyway. “We consider that this would save cost and time for applicants who wish to become an ABS as well as for regulators.”
  • Amend the Act so that heads of legal practice and of finance and administration (COLPs and COFAs in traditional firms) only have to report ‘material’ failures to comply with licensing rules, rather than ‘all’ failures as now. This would bring ABSs into line with non-ABS firms.

The Consultation runs until 3 August 2016.

For Lord Faulks Ministerial statement, see https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/legal-services-regulation.

For the Consultation paper, go to https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/legal-services-removing-barriers-to-competition

For the summary in Legal Futures go to http://www.legalfutures.co.uk/latest-news/government-lays-plans-encourage-abss-enter-market#

 

First female Lord Chancellor

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In appointing Lynne Truss MP to be Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has made history. Truss is the first woman to hold this office – ever.

What is important, of course, is what policies she will take forward. Although his last weeks in Government were surrounded in controversy, Truss’ predecessor Michael Gove had taken some important initiatives, in particular on prison reform and reform of the civil justice system.

I will note developments as they occur in these blogs.

Written by lwtmp

July 15, 2016 at 3:26 pm

Posted in Chapter 4

Competition and Market Authority Interim Report

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On 24 January 2016 I noted here that the Competition and Market Authority was going to undertake a new survey of the Legal Services Market to see whether it was working as effectively as it should to deliver innovative, quality and cost-effective services, especially to individuals and small businesses. They promised an interim report on July 2016.

Well, the CMA has been as good as its word and an initial, interim report has just been published. This triggers a further period of consultation with a final report merging early in 2017.

The ‘nuclear option’ for the CMA is what is known as a full-scale investigation into the market under review. This can take a lot of time and be very disruptive for the industries affected. The Legal Services Market so far seems to have avoided this outcome – which I suspect comes as a considerable relief to practitioners and their representative bodies – the Bar and the Law Society.

But it is far from the case that the CMA has given the Legal Services Market a clean bill of health. On the contrary, it is very critical of the ways in which many legal services are delivered, which have failed to keep pace with developments in other service sectors.

The headline findings are:

  1. the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has provisionally found that competition in legal services for individual and small business consumers is not working as well as it might. While there have been some positive developments, such as an increased use of fixed fees for more commoditised services, the CMA has found that upfront information on price and quality is often not available to consumers in order to allow them to compare offers and choose the one that most suits their needs.This is because few service providers (17%) publish their prices online.
  2. It is also difficult for providers to signal quality in this sector and there are a lack of digital comparison tools to make comparisons easier for consumers.As a result only a minority of individual consumers (22% according to our survey) compare providers before choosing one.
  3. This may reduce the incentives for providers of legal services to compete. This lack of competition may mean some providers are able to charge higher prices when substantially cheaper prices are available for comparable services.
  4. The CMA has also considered whether legal services regulation has an adverse effect on competition. Its provisional view is that this regulation does not create significant barriers to entry or distort competition between regulated and unregulated providers of legal services.
  5. However, the CMA thinks that the current regulatory regime does impose significant costs on providers that in some cases may be excessive relative to the benefits in consumer protection. While the CMA welcomes the liberalising steps that have already been taken by regulators to address these issues within the current regulatory framework, the CMA is open to more fundamental change of the regime. However, at this stage it believes that there is a risk that such change might lead to increased regulation and might involve significant transitional costs as well as regulatory uncertainty.
  6. It has noted the complexity of the current regulatory framework with its multiplicity of regulators and questions around regulatory independence. In this context, the CMA notes that the government intends to examine the issue of regulatory independence.

The services covered by the market study include areas such as commercial law, employment law, family law, conveyancing, immigration, wills and probate and personal injury and represent an estimated annual turnover of around £11 to £12 billion. In carrying out its market study so far, the CMA has surveyed individual and small business customers, analysed existing data and research and heard from a wide range of interested parties.

What is clear is that pressures on legal service providers to adopt different and more transparent working practices are still very much in evidence and that failure to take heed of these recommendations could ultimately result in more draconian measures being adopted by regulators.

Further detail about the report can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cma-seeks-views-on-ways-to-help-legal-services-customers

 

 

 

Written by lwtmp

July 12, 2016 at 2:37 pm