Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by PCS (OAJ 08)

Introduction

1. The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) is the largest trade union in the civil service with over 280,000 members in the civil service associated private bodies. This includes over 15,000 staff working in the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). We represent staff across a number of grades in the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council (AJTC).

2. PCS believe, as does the AJTC Chairman Richard Thomas, that the AJTC should not be abolished and its functions should be placed within the MoJ. Placing the roles and functions within the MoJ does not make sense as it would effectively mean that the Ministry would be its own watchdog.

The Role of the AJTC

3. The AJTC is fundamentally important to citizens, particularly those who are the victims of procedural error, cancelled and badly administered tribunals. In the past the Chief Executive has had to apologise for an inefficiently run Tribunals Service, delayed papers to the judiciary.

4. The AJTC is an independent body that acts as a watchdog to different tribunals and ombudsmen that work to different departments and particularly the tribunal services that are part of the MoJ. Under current proposals in the Public Bodies Bill this body faces being abolished and some of its scrutinising roles being taken in to the Ministry of Justice. This would undermine the vital independence of the organisation.

5. The AJTC carries out its function through oversight of the organisations, with whom over the years they have built up important trust and relationships, and through proactive policy work such as the recent work on “right first time decision making”.

6. Increasingly the decisions made by tribunal services are being called into question with half of immigration cases being overturned on appeal and 42% of child support settlements being changed.

PCS Concerns

7. The MOJ is imposing severe and most likely debilitating cuts within Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. These cuts could damage the very delivery of a legal system that this country has provided for many years.

8. Citizens and taxpayers need an independent body to ensure that their elected representatives and the judiciary do not exceed their powers. The abolition of the AJTC will be a mistake particularly at a time of upheaval and when there is increasing applications to tribunals and the proposed legal cuts which will, as Baroness Scotland of Asthal pointed out during the report stage debate of the Public Bodies Bill, “contribute to increasing delays in courts and tribunals that are already under pressure”.

9. Future proposals to increase unfair dismissals from one year to two years and charge fees to applicants will increase the importance of having a government body that can properly scrutinise tribunals. We are concerned that an abolished or “gagged” AJTC would be either an absent or toothless watchdog. The government has suggested that champions such as “Which?” magazine could take over the role of the AJTC. PCS believe that it makes no sense to replace a watchdog of the tribunals with a consumer magazine. “Which?” is a consumer group which only advise on bringing action under the Consumer Protection Act, an Act that does not cover Public Bodies.

10. It also should be noted that in the areas of civil and family justice the government has recognised the continuing need for an independent arms-length advisory body. It should not therefore be pressing ahead with the abolition of the AJTC.

11. It is at this very moment that the AJTC is needed to ensure that any changes or reforms do not result in a badly administered tribunal services which could result in increased travesties of justice.

12. On the aspect of savings, the AJTC has an annual budget of £1.3 million per year and its role in advising and warning the Ministry of potential travesties of justice or procedurals mishaps would save the taxpayer millions if not more. As its arms length status makes it completely independent and not politically motivated the AJTC will not be pressurised by the judiciary, senior civil servants in the Ministry Of Justice or Ministers.

13. The Government has not attempted to cost its “dedicated team” in MoJ. The team is responsible for “business as usual” recently transferred from the Tribunals Service, providing support to the Tribunal Procedure Committee and creation of the new Property Lands and Housing Chamber of the First Tier Tribunal. The resource available to replace the work of the AJTC appears to amount to little more than one or two newly-appointed officials who have administrative justice policy as part of their wider portfolio. There is no guarantee that even this resource will be retained for any length of time as the re-structuring of the MoJ’s justice policy group is still ongoing, with the risk that the staff concerned will be reallocated to work regarded as a higher priority at any time, as has already happened this year. It seems to us highly likely that this small resource will quickly be lost because administrative justice does not feature in MoJ’s published strategic plans. We do not accept that an advisory council of sixteen experienced and well-connected administrative justice experts, supported by a small team of dedicated policy officers, can easily be replaced by the full-time equivalent of less than two civil servants.

14. It is concerning why the AJTC is being abolished since the volume of appeals has risen dramatically in the last few years and particularly in the Tribunals. It is also notable that the AJTC is shortly to publish a report that will challenge the government to recognise the scale of unnecessary cost generated by its own actions. The report will be critical of complex and badly drafted laws in some areas of administrative justice without strategic action to improve it.

15. It will also record their concerns about recent policy trends which create barriers to justice, including the reduction in legal aid, the introduction of fees and the unacceptable and growing delays in providing hearing dates for appeals.

16. There is surely an imperative need to have an arms length body to act as a government and judicial watchdog such as in a case where a Minister is alleged to have a conflict of interest in the reduction of legal aid and the insurance industry.

17. PCS believe that the government has also failed to take into consideration the fact that there are different types Tribunals in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In its creation of HMCTS it has rushed ahead with the creation of an organisation which takes no consideration of Scotland’s different legal system and even “reserved” Tribunals, yet the HMCTS has control over Scottish Tribunals and the HMCTS exists for England and Wales. The unification of the courts and tribunals judiciary in and England and Wales under the Lord Chief Justice will have implications for cross border sitting. It seems that there was not enough consultation with the judiciary on this matter.

18. Tribunals are not just run by the MoJ. There are different tribunals spread across different government departments and local authorities. The AJTC has the skills and experience to oversee these tribunals and offer advice on improvements independently. These skills and experience cannot be guaranteed if it is abolished and its current functions are moved into the MoJ.

15 November 2011

Prepared 7th March 2012