Our final fringe meeting was co-hosted (as always) with JUSTICE and focused on Reforms to the Justice system. The meeting was chaired by Catherine Atkinson (SLL secretary and Labour PPC for Erewash) and featured Andrew Walker of the Bar, Simon Davies of the Law Society, Jodie Blackstock of JUSTICE and Shami Chakrabarti.
Shami Chakrabarti was sceptical about recent reforms, specifically the Court and Tribunal bill is “not as neutral” as it is made out to be, delegating judicial functions with insufficient protections. She will continue to table amendments in the Lords. She advised caution when hoping to improve access to justice through digitisation: "I’ve never met someone going through a life crisis who wanted a computer, who didn’t need someone to sit with them show them empathy as well as expertise."
Simon Davies of the Law Society acknowledged the 'good news' of a 1 billion investment into Court modernisation, and that many document review tasks could be done by machines. But he referenced this government's 'shocking record' on IT projects, and the sweeping Court closures, which threatens to destroy public trust and confidence in the sector.
Andrew Walker of the Bar Council argued the planned 250m saving per year took the focus away from justice. On video hearings, he questioned whether vulnerable witnesses examined via links are judged the same way as live witnesses?
Jodie Blackstock of JUSTICE has been researching digitisation. Probate is being done online, with a user satisfaction process at each end over 90%. She described the programmes as a careful step by step process (which they were consulted on in the design stage) clear and simple. Online guides on the HMCTS platform could target different audiences (even prisoners in their cells) and remove legal jargon and unnecessary formalised rituals. She agreed that we still need physical courts (and that every guide online should be replicated in leaflets or posters).
Steve Cavalier of Thompsons Solicitors addressed the room on the Civil Liability, which will have the effect that 40% successful claims will no longer attract costs - so claimants must go unrepresented or pay their own fees - whereas insurers will still be represented. Labour peers (including Shami) have done a great job in the Lord’s and, though it is regrettable Labour abstained in the Commons, but he is hopeful they will vote against in 3rd reading.
In closing, Catherine Atkinson (Secretary of SLL and PPC for Erewash) wrapped up the themes of questions - which included Magistrates' Courts over-listing, lack of legal aid for families in inquests or for women's groups and on the future of the legal profession. Trying to do justice on the cheap is a false economy. Genuine reform must be based on proper evidence and have money behind it, not be simply a planned 'cost-cutting' measure or race-to-the-bottom on price.