Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Ministry of Justice (OAJ 07)

Executive Summary

1. The Ministry of Justice welcomes this Inquiry by the Public Administration Select Committee into oversight of the administrative justice system. The Department is committed to developing a strategic, UK-wide approach to the administrative justice system, to ensure that where disputes do arise, proportionate, timely and cost effective solutions are provided, and lessons are learned in order to effect continuous improvements in the system as a whole and drive up the quality of initial decision-making. The Department is in the process of identifying the priority areas and allocating the resources needed to take them forward.

The Issue

2. This memorandum has been prepared in response to the announcement by the Public Administration Committee on 26 October that it would be holding a short enquiry into Government oversight of the administrative justice system.

Administrative Justice Policy in the Future

3. The Department is undertaking an existing programme of work, and has teams currently organised around four broad themes:

The creation of new appeal rights, new jurisdictions and support for the transfer into HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) of existing tribunals and bodies. This includes working with other government departments on policy development and the requirement for an appeal right or other form of appropriate redress and supporting the delivery of projects such as the creation of a First-tier Tribunal, Property, Land and Housing Chamber.

Support for the Tribunal Procedure Committee including the provision not only of secretariat support for the committee itself but also the interface between the committee, officials and key stakeholders and the management of the statutory instrument process seeing rule changes through to their commencement.

Strategic policy issues which cut across the administrative, civil and family jurisdictions—including proportionate dispute resolution, mediation, greater use of technology, and the information available for users.

Working with other government departments to keep the whole of the administrative justice landscape under review, whether within central or local government ownership. For example, MoJ is working in partnership with the Department for Work and Pensions and its agencies to improve first stage decision-making, for the benefit of the user and to reduce the pressure on the appeals system, by reviewing end to end dispute resolution and feedback arrangements. The Department will spread lessons learned among decision making bodies to drive up standards.

4. The Department also works closely with the Cabinet Office on ombudsman policy, and works collaboratively with the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. Whilst maintaining the independence of the ombudsmen these interactions enable the Department to be in a good position to raise the profile of other public service ombudsmen across Whitehall. The Department also works closely with the devolved administrations to develop an overview of the wider system, across the UK, sharing best practice and ensuring appropriate consistency in rules and processes. There is also cross-border judicial oversight, coordinated by the Senior President of Tribunals.

5. The views of users will continue to form a central part of how the Department exercises its policy responsibility for the administrative justice system. The Department does, and will continue to, take account of the views of service users. It will consult widely with experts, including those who represent users, as part of the policy formulation process. This is in addition to the user groups which almost all jurisdictions have, and which enable users to discuss issues of concern with the judiciary and HMCTS management. These groups operate at national and local levels, and bring together representatives of the public who use tribunals services, professional groups (such as the Bar and Law Society), the judiciary and officials.

6. The Public Bodies Bill, which is nearing the conclusion of its Parliamentary passage, includes provision to abolish, by order, the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council (AJTC). As the Government has made clear in its consultation paper and during the passage of the Bill, whilst it appreciates the work undertaken by the AJTC in respect of administrative justice, in particular the support provided to the development of the unified Tribunals Service, it believes the functions performed by the AJTC are either no longer required, or more properly carried out by Government.

7. The Department is of the firm view that the development of administrative justice policy is properly the function of Government. An advisory body working in this area means duplication of effort and resources. While the AJTC is an arms length body, the Government’s view is that independence in this sense is not a prerequisite for policy advice on administrative policy, just as it is not for any other policy area; officials, working in close consultation with stakeholders, can provide Ministers with balanced, objective, impartial and expert advice. The abolition of the AJTC will also deliver financial savings.

8. In reviewing the Ministry of Justice’s arm’s length bodies, including the AJTC, Ministers took into account cost, comparative value for money and whether a body’s functions are still required when deciding whether to include them in the Bill. This review concluded that the AJTC should be abolished, but that some other of the Department’s arm’s length bodies, including the Civil Justice Council (CJC), should remain. During the Bill’s passage, it has been suggested that the AJTC could be merged with the CJC. The Department is not persuaded by the arguments for this. While there is some similarity, the roles of both bodies are distinct. Unlike the AJTC, the CJC is judicially led and responsible for overseeing and co-ordinating the modernisation of the civil justice system in England and Wales. The CJC does not have the same duplication of functions with the Department in relation to administrative justice. To widen the remit of the CJC so dramatically by combining it with the AJTC would alter its dynamic and make it unwieldy: the administrative justice system includes not only appellate courts but also complaint handlers, mediators, ombudsman and tribunals which are distinctive in character from the courts. All remaining NDPBs, including the CJC, will be reviewed every 3 years. These reviews will look afresh at the fundamental questions of whether the functions of the body are still needed, and if so whether the body is the right mechanism to carry them out.

9. The Department is grateful not only for the valuable contribution of the AJTC, its commitment to reform of the administrative justice system and the expertise it brings together, but also the constructive engagement at official level as it continues to plan the future programme of work. This will include how to further build on the foundations laid by the 2004 white paper, Transforming Public Services: Complaints, Redress and Tribunals, and the valuable AJTC legacy, not least the recommendations in its most recent report; Promoting Fairness and Redress: Administrative Justice at Risk?

Conclusion

10. In conclusion, the Department is well placed to undertake the oversight of and drive improvements in the administrative justice system, across the UK. Locating responsibility for administrative justice within the Justice Policy Group ensures it forms a key part of the wider justice reform agenda while at the same time proper consideration is given to its distinctive nature and the particular issues that arise. It is committed to driving up the quality of original decision making and ensuring that where individuals wish to challenge decisions, there is a clear, simple, timely, cost-effective and fair means for them to do so. It welcomes the view of this Committee on priorities for the future.

November 2011

Prepared 7th March 2012