Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (5): Parliamentary inquiries (revised)

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Those interested in how key actors in the legal world are trying to cope with the implications for the English Legal System of  Covid-19 might care to follow the work – currently on-going – of two  Parliamentary Select Committees.

The  House of Commons Justice Committee launched an inquiry into Coronavirus (COVID-19) on 31 March 2020. It is examining the impact on prisons, the probation service and the court systems. They have held three evidence gathering sessions in which they heard from a number of key witnesses, including the Lord Chief Justice, the Minister of State, key officials from Prisons and Probation, the Chair of the Magistrates Association. It is likely that the Committee will publish a relatively short report in the course of the next few weeks.

At the same time on 13 May 2020, the House of Lords Constitution Committee opened an inquiry into the Constitutional implications of Covid 19. This will be a more wide-ranging inquiry than that being held by the Commons Justice Committee.

The announcement of the inquiry states:

The Covid-19 pandemic and the Government’s measures to respond to it have significant constitutional implications, as well as health, social and economic ones. These include:

  • The ability of Parliament to hold the Government to account
  • Scrutiny of emergency powers
  • The operation of the courts

The Constitution Committee will consider these issues and other related matters as part of an umbrella inquiry into the constitutional implications of Covid-19. The Committee will initially explore questions such as:

  • What can Parliament do to maximise its scrutiny of the emergency regulations and to hold the Government to account effectively during lockdown? How are adjustments to procedures and processes working in the House of Lords?
  • What are the consequences for different ways of Parliament working on effectiveness, accessibility, fairness and transparency?
  • What emergency powers has the Government sought during the pandemic and what powers has it used and how?
  • What lessons are there for future uses of emergency powers, their safeguards and the processes for scrutinising them?
  • How has the Government used both law and guidance to implement the lockdown and what have been the consequences of its approach? How has this varied across the constituent parts of the United Kingdom?
  • What liberties has Parliament loaned the Government during lockdown? What are the processes for reviewing and returning them? Are the sunset provisions in the Acts and regulations sufficient?
  • How is the court system operating during the pandemic? What has been the impact of virtual proceedings on access to justice, participation in proceedings, transparency and media reporting?
  • How will the justice system manage the increasing backlog of criminal cases? Is it appropriate to rethink the jury system during the pandemic, and beyond, and if so how?

 

To date, the Committee has issued a call for evidence and has had a number of hearings at which oral evidence has been presented. Among the witnesses who have already given evidence is the ‘guru’ of the use of IT in the delivery of legal services, Prof Richard Susskind and the leading researcher on the justice system, Prof Dame Hazel Genn.

I suspect this report will take somewhat longer to appear than that of the Commons Committee.

In addition to these two inquiries which cover many aspects of the working of the legal and justice systems, in mid-May 2020, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee also launched an inquiry: Responding to Covid-19 and the Coronavirus Act 2020. The aim of this inquiry is set out as follows:

The Coronavirus Act 2020 was emergency legislation passed by Parliament on 25 March, to provide the Government with the powers it wanted to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK.

Under section 98 of the Act 2020, every six months there is “parliamentary review” which means that the Government must, so far as is practicable, make arrangements for the following motion to be debated and voted on: “That the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 should not yet expire.”

PACAC is launching an inquiry to scrutinise the constitutional and public administration aspects of the Act, with the goal of supporting and informing that debate.

It has issued a call for evidence but has not to date arranged for any meetings or hearings.

For links to all these inquiries see:

The Justice inquiry is at https://committees.parliament.uk/work/254/coronavirus-covid19-the-impact-on-prison-probation-and-court-systems/

The House of Lords Constitution Committee is at https://committees.parliament.uk/work/298/constitutional-implications-of-covid19/

The evidence of Profs Susskind and Genn is at https://www.parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/0f0810d1-9489-4506-9108-139f6d4f221e

The PACAC inquiry is at https://committees.parliament.uk/work/310/responding-to-covid19-and-the-coronavirus-act-2020/

All evidence sessions held by Parliamentary Committees can be accessed at https://parliamentlive.tv/Commons.

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