Revelations from the Civil Justice Council National Forum
By Tony Guise
Tony Guise shares the latest insights in civil justice from the CJC National Forum
In July 2022, we found ourselves in the Mary Ward Centre in London, for the Civil Justice Council (CJC) conference about reform in the world of costs (see the Solicitors Journal vol 165 issue 10, October 2022). Four months later and a half-kilometre stroll north we found ourselves in the elegant headquarters of the Quakers – the Friends House, opposite the magnificent late 19th century lodges of Euston Station and adjacent to Bentham House. Reminders of the era of visionary railway architecture and visionary philosophy, made Friends House the perfect location for the CJC’s premier event.
Access to justice for all
The occasion for this gathering was the annual National Forum on Improving Access to Justice for All. This strap line began to ring the first of a number of changes announced during this event. Previously, and since its inception, the Forum has been called the National Forum on Access to Justice for Those Without Means. This change of title is significant – and although some might take issue with this re-naming, I believe, on balance, the change of title – and with it, the event’s focus – can only be for the good. The new title enables a wider range of topics to be discussed while retaining the original focus, as this year’s agenda makes clear, with topics such as:
- How can the digital justice system improve access to justice for vulnerable court users?
- What can the sector do to support the digitally excluded?
- How is data informing improvements to the system to support successful outcomes?
This is clearly within the remit of the original title, while the new title allows for discussion of topics such as: costs (again…), determining mental capacity, public legal education, navigating a better future for civil justice and resolving disputes before court.
The CJC is the only body with a duty, enshrined in statute (s6(3), Civil Procedure Act 1997) to keep the civil justice landscape under review – and to consider how to make the civil justice system more accessible, fair and efficient and make proposals for research.
The keynote speech
The Master of the Rolls’ speech revealing the dramatic reduction in the processing time for acknowledgements of service, defences and the like did sound a little like a revelation. For those of us who have long argued for the adoption of effective IT in the civil justice system, this ‘revelation’ drew a wry smile. Nevertheless, it is good to see the plan working!
The keynote speech came from Lord Bellamy, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) whose responsibilities include the modern justice system, legal support, dispute resolution, lawtech and emerging technologies”. Lord Bellamy gave us the headline-catching news that the introduction of Fixed Recoverable Costs on the new Intermediate Track was postponed until October 2023. Among other reasons given was the need to take account of the Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Belsner v CAM Legal Services  EWCA Civ 1387. This was presumably to allow the Online Procedure Rules Committee (OPRC), which starts work in April 2023, to make rules concerning the recoverability of costs in the new Pre-Action Protocol online portals – a prospect suggested by the Master of the Rolls in the Belsner judgment (at para ).
Solutions to come
In future, I expect the event to cover more solutions than the historical problems that have beset civil justice for too many years. In particular, the reform of the Pre-Action Protocols and the management of that phase on digital platforms will give rise to exploring how these solutions work and what may be done to further improve delivery of civil justice.
I attended the breakout on pre-action resolution, as DisputesEfiling.com will be providing one of the online portals for pre-action activity post-reform. The breakout panel comprised John Sorabji, Andrew Higgins and Masood Ahmed, expertly chaired by Nicola Critchley. All are members of the Pre-Action Protocol Review Working Group.
The pre-action breakout was well attended by up to 60 people and many more online. We learned that the Group’s eagerly awaited Final Report should be published before Christmas. By the time you read this, the Group’s recommendations for the future of pre-action should have been revealed! Technology is wonderful for making things happen quicker and bringing people together. For me an unexpected, but nonetheless special moment, was being able to wave a greeting to my old friend, and prolific mediator, Peter Causton whose smiling face beamed out from the big screen in the room as I sat on the front row!
Things yet to come
The online management of the pre-action phase is crucial in order to manage the very large volume of cases. The good news is that the Ministry of Justice are actively developing that aspect of the new pre-action landscape. There should be more news in early January – and I will report the plans as they are revealed during 2023.
The big reveal
The big reveal of the day came in the penultimate session with Sir Ernest Ryder (past Senior President of the Tribunals, current Master of Pembroke College, Oxford and Trustee of the Nuffield Foundation). The Foundation supports research into civil justice with the aim of promoting “a modern justice system that delivers effective legal and social justice for all”. During Sir Ernest’s erudite and entertaining speech came a memorable proposal with a welcome invitation. He proposed that the CJC replace its motto “Your voice in the civil justice system” with the snappier (and perhaps more appropriate, given the Council’s rising profile): “The voice of civil justice”.
Sir Ryder encouraged the CJC to apply for Nuffield for research to further develop and reform civil justice – and such an application was long overdue. This could initiate yet further significant improvements in civil justice and would meet the duty imposed on the Council by section 6(3)(e) of the Civil Procedure Act, 1997 “to [make] proposals for research” to fulfil the Council’s other statutory objectives.
Finally, I congratulate the Private Secretary to the Master of the Rolls, Sam Allan, for his excellent closing speech in which he credited the Council for its capacity to bring so many people in the civil justice community together. He rightly, acknowledged the vital contribution made by the team in both the Judicial Private Office and the Council’s Secretariat in making this event happen.
Next year’s agenda is already in the making – and may be held at the same venue. This has become a firm fixture for civil justice. Friends House is as fitting a name as it is a place to resume the debate.
The proceedings in the main hall are now Available on YouTube via this link.
Tony Guise is the director of DisputesEfiling.com, a provider of online dispute management platforms, and for the past 28 years has been a leading campaigner for civil justice reform: Twitter: @CloudArbitrator; linkedin.com/in/tonyguise