In October 2010, the Government's announced its intention to abolish the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council (AJTC) as part of its programme of reform of public bodies. The process of abolishing the AJTC, through an Order under the Public Bodies Act 2011, will involve further Parliamentary scrutiny, and we intend that our report should inform that process.
This subject may seem obscure and technical, but it touches upon the lives, the standards of living, and rights of millions of citizens every year. Administrative justice includes decision-making in relation to matters such as individuals' taxes, benefits, child support and immigration rights. The AJTC is charged with keeping an enormous system under review, including internal complaints mechanisms as well as the tribunals which determine appeals on such matters.
Within the tribunal system alone, administrative justice hearings650,000 per year outnumber significantly the combined total of civil justice and criminal justice hearings and trials. The National Audit Office has estimated that there are 1.4 million cases processed through redress systems in central Government annually, at an annual cost of £510 million per year.
A high proportion of decisions made are overturned on appeal. This poor decision-making results in injustice to individuals and cost to the taxpayer on a scale that PASC finds unacceptable. The role of the AJTC in providing an independent overview of the system is therefore one of vital national importance.
The vast majority of the evidence we heard, except that from the Government, was opposed to the Ministry of Justice's plan to abolish the AJTC and absorb or abandon its functions. It is arguable whether or not the AJTC meets the Government's three criteria for deciding whether to retain a public body.
We agree with the Government that responsibility for the development of policy in relation to administrative justice properly lies with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), but we do not share its view that this is a function currently duplicated by the AJTC. We also accept that some current functions of the AJTC have been taken over by Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service. If the AJTC is retained, its functions will need to be reviewed and may need to be revised. The judgment for the House is not just whether the AJTC should be abolished, but also whether sufficient and appropriate provision has been made for the continued performance of any necessary functions that it previously carried out.
It is clear that there is a fundamental difference of view between the Government and others on both the need for independent oversight of the administrative justice system, and the extent to which the AJTC has been performing such a function. We accept that this task may be undertaken in more than one way, but consider that oversight by an entity independent from Government is valuable and should be continued in some form. The MoJ, as a part of Government, cannot replace these functions. If these are functions worth preserving, the Government will need to revisit its plans. Concerns were also raised about the resources and expertise which would be available within the MoJ, particularly as substantial elements of the administrative justice system lie outside its current remit. PASC doubts the cost savings which the Government estimates will be achieved by the AJTC's abolition, which are in any case, a small fraction of what the Government should be aiming to save by getting more decisions right in the first place. We recommend that the MoJ should publish further information on these points to enable proper scrutiny of its proposals.
Finally, we recommend that, if the AJTC is abolished, the MoJ should, in the interests of continuing transparency, report annually to Parliament on the operation of the administrative justice system.