Bridget Prentice MP Speech

Speech given by Bridget Prentice MP at the launch of the Administrative Justice & Tribunals Council

Introduction

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the official launch and inaugural conference of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council.

It’s a great pleasure to be here and I thank you for inviting me to be with you. I feel slightly as if I’m hanging on to the coat-tails of my predecessors who have worked so hard on reforms in this area but it is very nice to be here.

I want to begin simply by saying “congratulations”. It’s no exaggeration to say that today is a landmark in the history of tribunals, and, indeed, for the delivery of justice.

But I too want to say “thank you”. We wouldn’t be here today without your enthusiasm, expertise and sheer hard work.

It’s always invidious to single out individuals for praise when we’re celebrating a collective achievement. But it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the contribution made by my colleagues Charlie Falconer, Geoff Filkin, and my immediate predecessor Cathy Ashton in keeping tribunals firmly on the political agenda. And like Tony [Newton], I’d like to thank Sir Andrew. If ever there was a ‘midwife’ for these reforms, it’s him!

It’s also important to thank Sir Robert Carnwath and Peter Handcock for their hugely effective leadership as the reforms have rolled out (and in passing to congratulate Robert once again on his appointment as Senior President of Tribunals).

But most of all, I want to thank you, Tony [Newton], for your leadership of the Council on Tribunals that’s brought us to this point. I know that the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council will benefit greatly from your experience and vision. And I’m sure that the new Council will soon establish itself as an indispensable part of the administrative justice landscape. So can I ask you all to show your appreciation and congratulations?

First Conference / TCE Act 2007

At last year’s conference Charlie Falconer addressed you, somewhat cryptically, on the future of the Council on Tribunals.

I say rather cryptically as it was just a few days before the Queen’s Speech on the State opening of Parliament.

By convention he was unable to confirm what I think it is safe to say most of the audience had already guessed – that at long last the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill was to be introduced. And that Sir Andrew Leggatt’s vision of a new Council “at the hub of the wheel of administrative justice” was about to be realised.

Well we’ve come a long way in just a year. Today, I would like to take this opportunity:

  • To consider what the 2007 Act means for all of us involved in tribunals;
  • to look back on the Council on Tribunals, paying tribute to the exceptional job that everyone involved with it has done;
  • and to look to the future, with the advent of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council.

Royal Assent

The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act gained Royal Assent on 19th July.

It secured its own place in history by being the first Act to obtain Royal Assent under the new Premiership. It was also the first Act under the new Ministry of Justice, and the first Act under the new Lord Chancellor.

We were delighted to be part of that sense of history. And that is testament to the way in which the government, the tribunals judiciary and the Council on Tribunals have worked together over the past six years to secure active support for the reforms.

I’m sure Tony [Newton], will agree (or at least I hope he will, not least because the government adopted a number of the proposals he made during the debates!) that the 2007 Act is an improved piece of legislation as a result of the Parliamentary process.

As ever, the skill with which Cathy Ashton and Vera Baird piloted the Bill through the Parliamentary debates was a lesson to us all on legislative stewardship.

Of course, the work and support of the team at MoJ was an essential part of the process and helped ministers enormously. In particular the work of Paul Stockton, who has led this work, was exceptional and we owe him and his team a huge amount of thanks for getting us to this point.

The TCE Act 2007

All this hard work is now going to start paying real dividends. Tribunals are a central part of the Justice system. They handle over half a million cases a year, often involving the most vulnerable people in society. As you’ll know, cases can range from social security appeals and disputes with employers, to children with special educational needs and asylum and immigration matters.

For some people, an appearance at a tribunal will be their only contact with the justice system. We therefore set out to create a system that delivers equality and transparency in accessing justice, supported by a well-organised and professional tribunals administration.

So, what does the 2007 Act actually mean for people on the ground?

The Act creates a two-tier tribunal system, comprising a First-tier and Upper Tribunal. Sir Robert Carnwath, as Senior President, will lead both. His role and office are now established in statute.

The Act ensures that the Senior President and tribunals judiciary are clearly independent of the Government. That is crucial to public confidence in the delivery of justice.

And the two-tier system will simplify what is often a confusing process for tribunal users. Over time, it’ll enable us to rationalise the rather “hotchpotch” of different rules and procedures that have grown up in what Tony referred to as the fragmented system we inherited. It’ll provide flexibility in the deployment of tribunal judges and members. But it’ll ensure that there isn’t any dilution of expertise.

Because much of the detail, including the structure of the new tribunals, their procedures and their judicial membership, has deliberately been left to secondary legislation, we need to consult on how to move forwards.

Next Wednesday – the 28th of November – we will publish a consultation document – entitled Transforming Tribunals – setting out the government’s plans for implementing Part 1 of the 2007 Act.

That document brings the reform story up to date. It sets the role of tribunals in the wider context of the administrative justice system as a whole, and charts the radical reforms that are being made to the way tribunals are organised and supported. But most importantly, it sets out in more detail how the reformed system is to be organised in future, and seeks views on the way ahead.

Your contribution to the consultation process will be invaluable.

In addition to this work, we are also continuing our programme of administrative changes, which will support the implementation of the Act.

This will involve:

  • the creation of multi-jurisdictional hearing centres, centrally located and with accommodation of a high standard;
  • the re-engineering of administrative processes to improve case management; and
  • the introduction of alternatives to a standard hearing process, with mediation, conciliation, and support and advice services all being considered.

Ultimately this should lead to a reduction in waiting times, and should put tribunal users at the heart of the system, where they belong. It is fundamental that they experience a service dedicated to and focused on them.

Taken together, these legislative and administrative initiatives mean we are driving forward the greatest change to tribunals in half a century.

Council on Tribunals – where we have come from

But before charging forward, it’s sometimes worth pausing for a moment to look back.

The Council on Tribunals was created in 1959, following the Franks Report, written 50 years ago, in 1957. That changed the perception of tribunals, removing them from the ‘ownership’ of Government and placing them firmly within the judicial environment.

It was based on the fundamental principles of openness, fairness and impartiality.

And over the last 50 years it’s fulfilled the remit it was given – ensuring these principles were applied in practice.

Those principles were also at the heart of the Leggatt Review, and have informed all of the work that has gone on since then. And they’ll continue to underpin the tribunals system in the future.

Since its inception, the Council on Tribunals worked extremely hard to raise standards. But the powers it had were limited. As tribunals multiplied, growing in size and complexity, it was imperative that their role also developed.

So Sir Andrew Leggatt argued for a Council with enhanced powers and a new remit covering the wider administrative justice system. As a result of the 2007 Act, and with the support and co-operation of the Council, that vision has now been realised.

What does it mean for AJTC? – The Future

So to the future. In addition to taking on the Council of Tribunals’ existing role, the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council will:

  • keep the administrative justice system under review;
  • consider ways to make the system accessible, fair and efficient;
  • advise Ministers and the Senior President on the development of the system and refer proposals for change to them;
  • and it will make proposals for research.

And in practice, that will mean:

  • the AJTC’s role will be much more robust in dealing with issues that affect or involve administrative justice and tribunals;
  • it’ll keep under review and influence the development of administrative justice through tribunals;
  • it’ll also keep under review the work of the Tribunals Service and those tribunals within it, offering authoritative advice and assistance on policy issues, and commenting on standards and performance;
  • it’ll explore the scope for new approaches to dispute resolution;
  • and it’ll consider emerging issues and proposals, identifying and responding to perceived needs and concerns; monitoring relationships between first instance decision-makers, ombudsmen, tribunals and courts to ensure clarity and flexibility.

Most importantly, it will never lose sight of the tribunal users themselves. In fact, more than that, it will champion their cause.

It’s therefore also important that the expertise of the Council on Tribunals’ existing membership is retained over this transitional period. I’m absolutely delighted that Tony Newton has agreed to Chair the new body. I’m also delighted that he’ll have with him on the new Council a wealth of experience drawn from the Council on Tribunals.

The Council has been pivotal over the last 50 years. It has welcomed and supported the changes we have introduced, while maintaining a robust independence from Government. The tribunals system is the better for its vigilance.

Conclusion

And so, here we are – at the AJTC’s first conference. This is a very exciting time for tribunals. We’re creating the most open, cohesive system for tribunal users that there has ever been.

I can’t emphasise strongly enough your rightful place at the core of the new system. And of course, I send my best wishes for every success in the future.

Although if the last 50 years is anything to go by, I very much doubt you will need them.

Thank you very much.

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