The Lord Chief Justice has called for judges to be appointed to the boards of the main legal regulators to ensure “tough standards of ethical behaviour and competence” in litigation.
Appearing before the justice select committee this morning, Lord Thomas said it seemed “very odd” that the judiciary was not represented on the boards of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), Bar Standards Board (BSB) and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx).
Answering a question from Conservative solicitor MP Alberto Costa, the LCJ questioned whether the “latest suggestions” that regulators should consult the judiciary before making board appointments went far enough.
“I still think it would be useful to have a judge who could express the judiciary’s point of view on the absolute importance of lawyers in front of the court having very tough standards of ethical behaviour and competence.
“My personal experience in an area where we had to take independent action, which was in lawyers representing people making judicial review applications in respect of people being deported for immigration and asylum reasons, is that there was insufficient attention to the standards people had to apply.
“It was terrible for the court and even worse for litigants. They would go to a highly reputable person who said there was nothing more that could be done or they would go to someone else, who would take quite a lot of money off them, then come and make a completely hopeless application to the court for no benefit.
“I do think it’s very important that we have effective discipline of litigators.”
Lord Thomas said the immigration lawyers concerned were both barristers and solicitors.
“One of the things that would seem to me to be an abuse again, is that certain firms were giving people training contracts, paying them very little and handing them responsibility for dealing with these cases. That is just wrong.”
The LCJ said that if firms took on trainee solicitors, they had an “absolute duty” to train them properly and supervise them.
On the future shape of legal regulation, Lord Thomas said there was a lack of “objective study” on whether the best option would be a single regulator.
“The two important things are that it’s effective and it’s not too expensive. The profession is right to be concerned about the cost of regulation, but on the other hand you’ve got to make sure it’s effective.
“That’s why independence is necessary, but not independence for its own sake.”
On the Briggs report, Lord Thomas said it was being looked at “very carefully” by the judiciary and an “awful lot of work” was being done on the Online Court.
“The one area for the government is enforcement, and that is for them to decide what we ought to do, but by and large there is agreement that most of it we ought to implement.”
Lord Thomas said the judiciary believed the “only slight deviation” from the Briggs report should be in making the Online Court “cross-jurisdictional”, rather than limiting it to civil money claims.
“We believe that much of what can be done by the Online Court is cross-jurisdictional, and we ought to move forward on all these different fronts at once, because we don’t really have an affordable option otherwise.”
Lord Thomas pinned his hopes on local video booths and temporary courts to soften the impact of the latest court closures.
He suggested that “some kind of video link” could be used so that, in north Wales, somebody in Dolgellau would not have to travel to a court in Caenarvon.
In Cumbria, where almost all the civil courts have been closed, he said an experiment was taking place in Kendal on setting up a temporary court in a non-legal public building.
The LCJ added that there were plenty of “elegant” public buildings in England and Wales which had two exits, ensuring that judges could leave separately, and reasonable security.