Lord Chief Justice “to have veto” over extension of online courts

Parliament: Bill to explicitly refer to need to support those who struggle online

The government is set to give the Lord Chief Justice the power of veto over what areas of law are moved into an online court system, it has emerged.

Amendments laid yesterday to the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill – which will give a legal basis for online procedures in civil and family courts, as well as tribunals – will also give the Lord Chief more say on the make-up of the rule committee.

Key amendments will change various requirements that the Lord Chancellor of the day consult with the Lord Chief Justice to one where they must obtain concurrence.

The amendments, laid by Lord Keen of Elie, the Ministry of Justice’s spokesman in the House of Lords, follow last week’s committee stage of the bill, during which former Lord Chiefs Lord Judge and Lord Woolf, and former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay, supported a change to concurrence.

Given the “wide powers” the bill would hand a minister, “consultation alone is a meaningless handout from the executive to the judiciary”, Lord Judge said.

The bill provides that the rule committee will be made up of a senior judge and one other judge, both appointed by the Lord Chief Justice, as well as one lawyer – either a solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive – and two others, one with experience in the lay advice sector, and the other in IT, appointed by the Lord Chancellor.

There are concerns about the size of the committee – far smaller than the existing procedural rule committees – and the fact that the majority would be appointed by a minister.

If Lord Keen’s amendments are accepted, the Lord Chief would appoint a third judge to the committee, and name one of those he appoints its chair.

Further, the bill’s requirement that new rules be signed by at least three members of the committee would change to a threshold of at least half of the members, where one of them is the chair, or a majority of members where not.

Calls to enshrine in the bill support for litigants unable to use online processes have been heeded as well.

The bill currently provides that the power to make online procedure rules “is to be exercised with a view to securing – (a) that practice and procedure under the rules are accessible and fair”.

A government amendment says that, for these purposes, “regard must be had to the needs of those who require technical support in order to initiate, conduct, progress or participate in proceedings by electronic means”.

A further amendment says that, in deciding whether to allow or disallow rules, the appropriate minister must have similar regard.

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