Justice secretary Dominic Raab is “in the market for something quite drastic and bold” to reduce the number of private law family cases in the courts, he said yesterday.
The Lord Chancellor and deputy prime minister said that, where family disputes did not involve domestic violence, the justice system ought to be “much, much better” at dealing with them through alternative dispute resolution.
Speaking to MPs on the justice select committee for the first time, Mr Raab said somewhere between 50% and 60% of private law family cases involved domestic abuse or safeguarding issues and needed to be heard before a judge.
“For me, and I’ve started talking to the senior judiciary about this to work out a well thought-through approach, the vast majority of the remainder shouldn’t really go to court.
“It should not be so easy just to say ‘we’ll go to court’. These are sad and sometimes tragic family break-up matters and they often involve children. We ought to do much, much better at using ADR or mediation.
“We must reconcile the incentives both for going to ADR and for going to court. Most of these cases should not be going to court. I would be in the market for something really quite drastic and bold in this area.”
On the court reform programme, he rejected suggestions from MPs that development of the Common Platform, a single case management system for criminal cases, had been put on hold.
Mr Raab said the “integrated approach” would produce “better outcomes and cut delays”.
He went on: “It is still proceeding at pace and we are still pushing it out. I am confident that we are continuing with it.”
Responding to a comment that the court reform programme should have been completed in 2019, Mr Raab said “quite a lot of progress” had been made, despite the pandemic.
“There is more to do, but we’ve got a good plan and we’ve got a focus on doing it in a way that wasn’t there before, thanks to the pandemic.”
On legal aid, Mr Raab said the £1.7bn spent by the government was as much as this year’s budget for the Covid vaccine programme.
He promised to take a “good, long look” at Sir Christopher Bellamy’s review of criminal legal aid, which he said had arrived on his desk that morning.
When asked by committee chair Sir Bob Neill whether the review would be published before Christmas, the justice secretary said he needed to read it first.
He said the government did have a “vision of a sustainable and flourishing” criminal legal aid sector, but the “end objective is about delivering justice”.
The Lord Chancellor said digital innovation would be “our friend” in reform of the probate system.
He said 76% of applications were now online and achieving a satisfaction rate of 90%. The average waiting time for a grant of probate had fallen to 3.3 weeks in the second quarter of this year.
However, Labour MP Maria Eagle said applications to the Court of Protection were taking 48 weeks to process, which was “surely completely unacceptable” and causing “deep distress” to her constituents.
At the start of the session, responding to suggestions that there might be a conflict between the roles of deputy prime minister and Lord Chancellor, Mr Raab said he thought the combination “will be helpful” in enabling him to “drive forward things with a cross-cutting nature”.
He added that he would be “very careful” to guard against the risk of a conflict. “There is an upside for the judiciary and they feel very comfortable with it.”