Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (12): impact on legal practitioners

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One impact of Covid 19 has been the exponential rise in the numbers of legal professionals who are currently working full-time from home. An obvious question is what will be the long-term impact of this development? When the pandemic is under control, will lawyers go back to their offices, as before? Or will there be a ‘new normal’ in which legal professionals will increasingly work from home, making only infrequent visits to their offices?

Roger Smith, who has for a number of years been writing on the impact of new technologies on the provision of legal services, has just published a really interesting blog of what he regards as some of the key developments. He looks not only at what has happened in the UK but draws on reports of developments in other jurisdictions.

For the short term, his conclusion is that, in general, legal service providers have adapted pretty quickly to the new environment – large corporate firms possibly more quickly than less well-funded practices.

One question for the future that he raises is what changes in management styles and management information systems will be required if high percentages of staff continue to operate from home.

See https://law-tech-a2j.org/digital-strategy/covid-19-technology-and-the-access-to-justice-sector-the-first-phase-remote-working/

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Written by lwtmp

July 13, 2020 at 3:37 pm

Royal Commission on the Criminal Justice system – details awaited

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In the Queen’s Speech, delivered in December 2019, it was announced that the Government would establish a Royal Commission to review and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice process. Little has been heard of this proposal since then. However, in recent meetings with the House of Commons Justice Committee, the Lord Chancellor made it clear that he has been given the resources needed to enable the establishment of the Commission.

At present – and no doubt reflecting other more pressing priorities driven by Covid 19 – no further information is available. It is, however, likely to be a broad-ranging inquiry, not only limited to the operation of the courts, but taking other aspects of the criminal justice system into account as well.

A separate consultation on the Criminal Legal Aid scheme closed in June 2020. The results of that inquiry are likely to be published towards the end of 2020. A number of interim changes to the criminal legal aid scheme were announced in February 2020.

For the Queen’s Speech, December 2019, see https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/queens-speech-december-2019

The announcement of the consultation on Criminal Legal aid is at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/criminal-legal-aid-review

Reaction of the Law Society is at https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/en/topics/criminal-justice/criminal-legal-aid

Proposed Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission

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One proposal that caught the eye in the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the December 2019 general election was that, following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, it would be necessary to look at “broader aspects” of the UK’s constitution. The idea was that a constitution, democracy, and rights commission should be established to examine the following issues:

  • the relationship between the government, parliament, and the courts;
  • the functioning of the royal prerogative;
  • the role of the House of Lords; and
  • access to justice for ordinary people.

Other areas would include examining judicial review and amending the Human Rights Act 1998 to balance the rights of individuals, national security, and effective government.

The Government has said that it wants to ensure a range of expertise is represented on the commission. It also wants the commission to evidence from third parties and civic society to inform any recommendations. However, there are currently limited details available on the remit, form, and composition of the commission.

Several commentators and academics have welcomed the general principle of reviewing the UK’s constitutional arrangements. However, some have expressed concern about the context of the commission, particularly coming after the Supreme Court found against the Government on constitutional issues.

Those interested in the starting to think about the issues which the Commission, once established, might consider will find the Research Briefing paper, written by Charley Coleman from the House of Lords Library and published in late March 2020, to be an excellent introduction.

The briefing can be found at https://lordslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/lln-2020-0089/

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (11): Civil Justice – results of the Civil Justice Council rapid survey

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As I have already noted here, Covid 19 has had a major impact on the ways in the courts are delivering their services. In particular, much attention has been directed towards the use of virtual or remote hearings – online paper hearings, hearings by phone and hearings by video.

The Civil Justice Council commissioned a rapid preliminary survey of how these new processes were working. The results of that survey were published in early June 2020. It was based on responses to a survey drawn from the experience of those involved in cases in a two-week period in early May 2020. The study was carried out by Dr Natalie Byrom of the Legal Education Foundation.

Obviously, such a survey can be no more than an initial glance at what is happening on the ground. Many of these preliminary findings are what might be expected:

  • many judges and practitioners were finding that they were getting on better with using new technologies than they might have anticipated;
  • they were coping despite a lack of advance training in the use of technologies;
  • the technologies themselves were often not as reliable as participants would like;
  • some types of hearing were more suited to remote hearings than others.

These are the sorts of issue that should be mitigated as all those involved in delivering new services  become better trained and more used to dealing with cases using the new technologies.

From a rather detailed report, four important points for the way ahead may be noted:.

  1. At present HMCTS does not have an effective way of capturing information details about what types of case are brought to court. For example, data is published on the numbers of possession proceedings brought by mortgage companies or landlords against residential occupiers (mostly for failure to meet payment obligations). But it is impossible to get any detailed information about the use of courts for other potential housing law issues. The report makes a strong plea that much greater effort should be made by HMCTS to identify the ‘data points’ which would provide a much more detailed picture of how the civil court system is functioning. Effective planning of future services cannot be provided without more detailed management information.
  2. There was a strong impression that video hearings were better suited for remote hearings that telephone hearings.
  3. There were inevitable concerns that litigants in person might be in difficulty using the new technologies unless adequate support was available.
  4. The survey was unable to capture what lay users of the system, in particular litigants in person, thought of these new developments. It was essential to fill this knowledge gap if the objective of HMCTS’ reforms – to provide services that users want and need – was to be met.

The survey report and related press release can be accessed at https://www.judiciary.uk/announcements/civil-justice-council-report-on-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-civil-court-users-published/

Further information about the Legal Education Foundation is at https://www.thelegaleducationfoundation.org/

 

Public legal education: news from Law for Life

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While the importance of public legal education is widely accepted in principle, it is left to the work of a pretty small charity, Law for life: foundation for public legal education, to continue to fly the flag for this important project.

The aims of the charity are to increase access to justice by providing everyone with an awareness of their legal rights together with the confidence and skills to assert them.

Most people struggle to cope with legal issues, and often don’t know where to go for help. Being able to cope with family and housing issues, sorting out employment and benefit matters or difficulties with goods and services is crucial. These issues are the cornerstones of everyday life that can become drivers of poverty and inequality if left unresolved.

To address these challenges Law for Life

  • publishes the online Advice Now information service that draws together the best up-to-date information about the law and rights available on the internet;
  • creates effective materials (leaflets, videos) that provide practical help on how to manage and resolve life’s legal problems;
  • delivers community-based education and training projects focussing on housing, welfare, consumer, and employment issues with an emphasis on skills;
  • offers consultancy to other organisations.

Updates on the work of Law for Life are provided in regular newsletters, the most recent of which was published on 30 June 2020.

For further details about Law for Life, see https://lawforlife.org.uk/

Advice Now is at https://www.advicenow.org.uk/

The Law for Life Newsletter is at https://mailchi.mp/42bebf74018a/8wt2tlhi1o-3120242?e=f65948d0ee

This has links to the full archive of Law for Life Newsletters.

 

 

 

 

Written by lwtmp

July 13, 2020 at 9:50 am

Probate online: recent developments – a practitioner’s view

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The arrival of Covid 19, and the necessity of trying to keep the legal system functioning with locked-down courts, virtual hearings and the like has meant that other aspects of the justice system Transformation programme have perhaps been forgotten.

The latest edition  (July 2020) of the HMCTS blog, Inside HMCTS, reminds us that other things are also happening, designed to modernise and approve the efficiency of the services provided within the legal system.

One development which has been quietly worked on for a number of years is the creation of means to carry out probate – the process of dealing with a deceased person’s estate – online.

Historically it has been an extremely difficult process, surrounded by a lot of procedural and legalistic complexity.

The HMCTS reform programme included a plan to modernise the process, to make it more straightforward both for practitioners and individual members of the public. An online service has been available since the end of 2019. Around 60,000 members of the public have used the service. And increasing numbers of solicitors are also using the service.

Stephen Cobb, a solicitor with a firm of lawyers who were involved in developing and testing the new process, has written a very interesting account of how the new system works. He stresses that it is still work in progress and that the current system will not necessarily deal with every complex estate. But, for general use, he is impressed with how it works. And he likes the freedom it gives him to submit the bulk of the paperwork on line.

For details, see https://insidehmcts.blog.gov.uk/2020/06/05/reforming-probate-for-the-twenty-first-century/

 

 

 

 

Written by lwtmp

July 11, 2020 at 10:09 am

Victims of crime: increase of the victim surcharge and consultation on new Code for victims

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In March 2020, the Government announced that it was increasing the Victim Surcharge by 5%. This was done by a Statutory Instrument which came into force on 14 April 2020.

The Victim Surcharge is not a fine, but a separate charge which courts must impose on all offenders to ensure they bear some responsibility towards the cost of supporting victims. Revenue from the Surcharge contributes to the Victim and Witness Budget which is used to grant fund Police and Crime Commissioners, who commission local support services for victims. It also funds nationally commissioned support such as:

  • Rape Support centres across England and Wales,
  • the Court Based Witness Service, and
  • the National Homicide Service.

The Government estimates that the 5% increase will raise between  £1 million and £2 million a year to help fund victim support services. It will see offenders pay between £1 to £9 extra, depending on their sentence. The Government is considering whether the surcharge should be increased even further.

Also in March 2020, the Government announced a consultation on proposals to change the Victims’ Code. If brought into effect, these would change the structure of the existing Code so it becomes a clearly defined set of rights, that are easy for victims to understand and which set out the minimum level of service victims can expect from criminal justice agencies.

The proposals focus on a number of key areas:

  • raising awareness and accessibility;
  • providing clearer information on victims’ rights to access practical and emotional support;
  • strengthening communication and taking account of the victim’s preferences; and
  • increasing the voice of the victim by providing more flexibility in the Victim Personal Statement process.

The Consultation ran until the end of May 2020; the outcome is still awaited.

For the announcement on the increase in the victim surcharge, see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/criminals-made-to-pay-more-to-fund-victim-support

More information on the Consultation on the Victims Code is at https://consult.justice.gov.uk/victim-policy/consultation-on-improving-the-victims-code/

 

Written by lwtmp

July 8, 2020 at 4:49 pm

Amending the doctrine of precedent? Proposals to permit departure from EU case law

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In 1966, the Supreme Court (then the House of Lords) issued a Practice Direction which asserted its authority to depart, in exceptional circumstances, from an earlier decision and thereby change what was regarded as settled law.

Occasions on which this power has been used have been rare. Between the publication of the Practice Direction in 1966 and the abolition of the House of Lords in 2009, the power was used around 25 times. And its use has been similarly restrained by the Supreme Court.

One specific context in which there can be pressure to override a precedent arises where a judgement from the European Court of Justice (or indeed the European Court of Human Rights) is incompatible with UK law.

A question which arises from the departure of the UK from the European Union is how, after the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020, UK courts should deal with cases from the European Court of Justice which will remain effective in the UK (technically known as ‘retained case law’).

The Government has announced a consultation on whether the principle that only the Supreme Court (and the High Court of Judiciary in Scotland) should have this power, or whether other courts should be given the same authority.

The Government’s preliminary view, on which the opinions of consultees are sought, is that the powers should be extended to either:

  • The Court of Appeal of England and Wales, the Inner Court of Session in Scotland, the Court of Appeal Northern Ireland and equivalent level courts throughout the UK; or
  • those courts plus the High Court of England and Wales, the Outer House of the Court of Session in Scotland, The Sheriff Appeal Court in Scotland, the High Court of Justiciary, and the High Court in Northern Ireland.

This raises an interesting possibility. Many years ago, the late Lord Denning argued that the Court of Appeal should have power to depart from its earlier decisions. He felt that because all the important cases went to the Court of Appeal it would be more efficient is they had the authority to make clearly needed changes to precedent, without the expense and delay of a further hearing in the Supreme Court. This view found no general support at the time.

However, if either of the Government’s options in the present consultation is taken forward, might this not lead to a revival of the views Lord Denning, which in turn could generate a somewhat wider argument about the powers of courts other than the Supreme Court to change binding precedent?

The consultation is at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/consultation-launched-on-post-eu-reforms-for-british-courts

 

 

 

 

 

Written by lwtmp

July 8, 2020 at 11:27 am

The Parliamentary Constituencies Bill 2020

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In recent months public attention on events in Parliament has been almost exclusively on the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic. Nonetheless, other important policy initiatives have been taking place, even though they may not have grabbed the headlines. One of these is the introduction of the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill 2020 in May 2020.

The United Kingdom is divided into 650 Parliamentary constituencies. Each constituency elects a Member of Parliament. Constituency areas are not, however, static. While the boundaries themselves may remain the same, the population within them may alter substantially, for example by the provision of new housing or the migration of people from a rural to an urban area.

If some constituencies have far larger numbers of people than other constituencies, it will be realised that to win an election based on a first past the post system, which applies to General Elections in the UK, a winner needs fewer votes in a constituency with a smaller number of voters than one in a constituency with a higher number of voters. To many, this seems unfair.

To reflect the changes that occur in constituencies, statutory agencies, called Boundary Commissions, are required to keep constituency boundaries under review. Historically this has taken place once every 5 years.

The basis on which boundary reviews were to take place was changed in 2011 when the then Coalition Government enacted the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Act 2011. This Act had two objectives:

  • to enable the holding of a referendum on whether a system of proportional voting should be introduced for Parliamentary elections (the referendum was held and the advocates of change lost the referendum);
  • to amend the system of constituency boundary review.

This second objective contained 2 noteworthy features. First, it reduced the number of parliamentary constituencies from 650 to 600. Second, it introduced the concept of the ‘electoral quota’ and provided that in carrying out its work, the boundary Commissioners should ensure that the number of constituents in any constituency was within 5% of the ‘electoral quota’. The electoral quota was to be established by dividing the total number of voters in the UK by the number of Parliamentary seats.

Although the Boundary Commissioners made recommendations for boundary changes, as they were required to do, in accordance with the Act of 2011, their recommendations were – for a variety of reasons never implemented.

When enacted, the new Bill will recommence the process of boundary review, but on a slightly changed basis.

  • First, the decision to reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600 has been dropped.
  • Second, the concept of the electoral quota, and ensuring that constituency sizes are within 5% of that quota figure is retained.
  • Third, the frequency of boundary reviews is reduced from once every 5 years to once every 8 years.
  • Other detailed changes relate to the consultation procedures to be adopted for undertaking reviews, and the process of presenting the outcomes of those reviews to Parliament.

The intention is that the next round of reviews should start early in 2021 so that they will be in place in time for the next General Election, which is likely to be in 2024.

For the policy background seehttps://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-statement/Commons/2020-03-24/HCWS183/

The Bill is at https://services.parliament.uk/Bills/2019-21/parliamentaryconstituencies/documents.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by lwtmp

July 7, 2020 at 4:09 pm

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (10): Family Justice

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In an earlier blog, Covid 19 and the English Legal System (8): guidance on new working practices, published on 3 July 2020, I drew attention to a resource from the Judiciary, setting out guidance to different courts and tribunals on how to manage cases in the current Covid 19 environment.

This note draws attention to just one of the documents that is to be found on that website. The Remote Access Family Court, (version 5), written by one of the Family Court judges, Mr Justice MacDonald, is a detailed statement of the ways in which in the context of the work of the Family Court, remote access hearings may be conducted, the sorts of proceedings for which remote hearings might be appropriate; the considerations to be taken into account when deciding whether a case should proceed remotely or not.

The primary impetus for the production of the document is the need to keep the business of the family courts going, particularly where matters must be dealt with urgently. The document acknowledges that the continuing need for social distancing is likely to mean that the practices and procedures considered in this report are like to retain their relevance, at least for some months ahead.

However, while acknowledging that aspects of the practices and procedures currently being used may be retained once the problems associated with the Covid 19 pandemic have eased, it states in terms that it should not be assumed that changes currently being adopted will necessarily be retained into the future.

What is clearly needed is for HMCTS to gather robust evidence about how innovations in practice and procedure are working, which takes into account not only the views of judges and lawyers, but also – crucially – the views of parties to proceedings who have experienced the new procedures in operation. New ways of working which well should be retained; those which do not should be altered or abandoned.

A very first attempt to gather evidence about the new system in operation was made in April 2020, when the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory was asked to undertake a rapid consultation on the use of remote hearings in the family justice system. This produced some preliminary information which helped consideration of when remote hearings might be possible and when remote access should not be used. For example, there was a general feeling that video hearings are more satisfactory than telephone hearings. There was also worry about some of the difficulties associated with the use of different technologies. But these findings are acknowledged to be only preliminary. Much more work needs to be done before a rounded assessment can be made, on which future policy may be based.

What the pandemic has done – and this comment applies to the whole of the justice system, not just family justice – has created the conditions in which new ways of working can be tested. It would be really disappointing if positive lessons learned from these experiences cannot be captured by a proper research programme, which would help the development of future policies for dispute resolution in courts and tribunals.

The report by Mr Justice MacDonald is at https://www.judiciary.uk/announcements/updated-version-of-the-remote-family-access-court-released/

The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory consultation is at https://www.nuffieldfjo.org.uk/coronavirus-family-justice-system/family-courts

 

Written by lwtmp

July 7, 2020 at 11:38 am