LCJ deals with the realities of retrenchment

Acknowledging that a “fundamental change is occurring in the role of the State. It is retrenching”, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd set out some possible options in a speech to the organisation Justice on 3 March. The justice system is “unprotected from the retrenchment”, the cuts are now thought to be something of a third in real terms since 2010 and “the anticipation is that the cuts will be permanent”. In order to maintain the rule of law, justice must therefore be administered “effectively, speedily and impartially in this new age”.

“We can only do that by radically examining how we recast the justice system so that it is equally if not more efficient, and able to carry out its constitutional function. The starting point is that we must be radical in our thinking. Too often in the past there has been an inevitable and not necessarily wrong tendency towards conservatism.”

To that end, he welcomed contributions from Justice, the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and other organisations. He has appointed Sir Stanley Burnton to look at “developing practical and innovative proposals” for the civil and family courts. One possible way of dealing with the “significant increase” in the number of litigants in person is to introduce a more inquisitorial form of process where at least one of the parties is not represented.

Experience in the family courts has shown, particularly in disputes over children, that “traditional procedures are not best suited to a dispute between father and mother over a child” where the parents are themselves adversaries in person rather than acting through lawyers.

Meanwhile, Sir Brian Leveson, President of the Queen’s Bench Division, has been asked to “examine ways of streamlining criminal procedure and to report initially on that within nine months”. Lord Thomas cited the example of fraud trials where “there are still major problems in disclosure that seem to indicate that the issues are getting worse rather than improving”. He suggested that we look “radically again” at disclosure and the mode of trial.

He recalled the recommendation of Sir Robin Auld back in 2001 that there should be an “intermediate court between the Magistrates’ Courts and the Crown Court” to deal with “lower-end” but indictable offences. There could be two forms of criminal procedure in the Crown Court, analogous “in intent if not in design to the fast and multi-track in civil procedure”.

For now these are ideas and projects.

While considering them it is worth remembering that “our proper Master is Justice” and that judges and lawyers are the servants of Justice.