Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Reforms must ensure access to justice for the public

Reforms must ensure access to justice for the public


There is some merit in Briggs LJ's proposals to introduce an online court, but some matters will always require more judicial involvement, says District Judge Paul Ayers

District judges are likely to have their daily jurisdiction changed more than any other branch of the judiciary by the reforms presently being considered by Lord Justice Briggs, who has
of course produced his initial report. I can advise that
district judges have had some considerable input into
this report.

Since the initial report was published we have made
further written submissions and attended a meeting with Briggs LJ, arranged at our request. Our submissions set out concerns regarding the interplay between what he is proposing and the road traffic accident portal protocol that is working so satisfactorily. I am pleased to report that he took on board
the issues eloquently put to
him by us, as he clearly had
not appreciated the potential conflict.Apart from the headline soundbites that have been aired many times before, the report is very much a scene-setter for those who are not fully conversant with the court system at present, and
it sets out some of the history. There is clearly a lot more
work to be undertaken and submissions to be considered.

As an association we appreciate that these changes are going to take place, and what we must do is ensure that we have as much further input as possible to guarantee that they work from the outset, and are not a half-baked scheme to be amended as problems arise.

Our two main concerns and the thrust of our comments at present are:

  • First, ensuring that there
    is proper access to justice available for the public
    (for whom the court system exists and who ultimately pay for it); and

  • Second, it is reliant on technology, and the court system does not have a
    good record in that regard.

Online court

In recent discussions we have, we believe, convinced those considering the changes that the online court is not suitable for either family work or housing possession claims. These are some of the most important issues that take people to
court and they must have the opportunity to be heard, by a judge who has the power to exercise discretion. Our view
on this will not change.

We are concerned that some people consider everything from a financial standpoint and it is not that simple. Some cases involving £10,000, say, may only involve a simple application of the law and a smaller claim of a few hundred pounds may be very complex. There must be some judicial involvement.

We do not object to some of the more straightforward and administrative matters being undertaken by case officers, provided there is a route of review to a district judge. We
are firmly of the view that case officer is the correct title as it would be inappropriate to use
a term that implied the officers were members of the judiciary.

We are of the opinion that there is considerable merit in there being a centralisation of enforcement; however, the matter must be referred to
a local court quickly should
any application be made.

Although we see some considerable merit in the online court, particularly now that a closure programme has been announced, there are a great number of issues that need to be considered to ensure that the proper disposal of justice is not compromised.

District judges are also concerned that there are many instances where it is vitally important for parties to attend
in person, especially where an assessment is being made in relation to their credibility.

These will be interesting times.

District Judge Paul Ayers is president of the Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges and sits in the Family and County Court at Bedford