Last week the Ministry of Justice launched a consultation on the reform of the justice system, by publishing two documents: a consultation paper and a joint statement from The Lord Chancellor, Lord Chief Justice, and the Senior President of Tribunals on their “shared vision” for the future of Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunal Service. I have been looking at both documents.
Introducing the consultation the Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice Sir Oliver Heald QC MP tells us:
“The world is moving on and our justice system must keep up to meet the changing needs and expectations of everyone who uses our courts and tribunals.”
The joint statement sets out how this will be achieved, by providing the public with a justice system that is just (that would be novel), proportionate (not entirely certain what that means) and accessible (so that’s why they cut legal aid and increased court fees).
Sir Oliver excitedly tells us:
“In practice, these principles will deliver swift and certain justice.”
The consultation continues with an avalanche of banalities and platitudes. We are told, for example, that “A fair and functional justice system underpins every civilised society”, and that “Family proceedings deal with some of the most sensitive issues in the justice system”. I never knew that. There are some general ideas, all of which we have heard before, such as more decisions being made ‘on the papers’ rather than at a hearing, and having more cases being resolved out of court (where have I heard that before? – oh yes, from every justice minister since 2010). As to family proceedings in particular, the consultation paper is a bit short of ideas, only mentioning online divorce proceedings, which we know about already.
Otherwise, we are only told that:
“We are working to consider what further changes are needed and will bring forward proposals in due course.”
The joint statement does at least have a little more substance when it comes to family courts. After telling us the completely obvious…
“The priority for the family courts is to find solutions to the most personal of disputes, often involving vulnerable children, and to set families on the best possible course for the future. These courts above all should be places of clarity and hope – not of complexity and process.”
…the statement continues with the equally obvious: “In the family law system, reforms will be guided first of all by the welfare of children.” Well, thank goodness the authors have read section one of the Children Act. The statement repeats the words of the consultation paper by telling us about the reforms following the Family Justice Review, and then exhorting that “there is more to be done.”
So what is going to be done? Well, in relation to private law cases, the statement sets out two things. Firstly, that they are considering how best they can help separating couples resolve disputes between themselves by “digitising and simplifying our processes and providing more information to enable people to make the right arrangements themselves.”
Secondly, in relation to divorce:
“We will simplify the process and put as much as possible of it online.”
So, nothing new there either. As to public law cases, we are told of existing ideas, such as Family Drug and Alcohol Courts, but there are no new ideas at all.
The statement concludes as it began with the usual banalities about our justice system being “revered around the world”. We also have the inevitable reference to Magna Carta, and even to the 1701 Act of Settlement, before we are told that:
“The rule of law is fundamental to every civilised society. Above all, these reforms will help to protect it.”
Will they really?
It could all be so exciting. A brave new world, full of new ideas. Unfortunately, if you strip away the platitudes, the banalities and the things we already know about, there really isn’t anything of substance here. Our justice system may be transformed over the coming years, but I’m not sure that this consultation will be able to claim much of the credit.