Amendment 1

Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill [HL] - Committee – in the House of Lords am 3:07 pm ar 10 Mehefin 2019.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede:

Moved by Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 9, leave out “or require”

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Llafur

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 6, which is in the first grouping. On Amendment 1, HMCTS has acknowledged that its assisted digital programme will not be sufficient to support everybody to engage with online processes and has therefore made a commitment that digital services will not be mandated. In relation to the reform agenda, it has been stated that HMCTS will continue to make provision for litigants to continue to use paper documents in accessing family court proceedings. It is therefore concerning that Clause 1(1)(a) would allow the Online Procedure Rule Committee to make rules requiring certain proceedings to be initiated electronically, and that Clause 1(1)(c) would allow rules requiring parties to participate electronically.

The purpose of this amendment is to make it crystal clear that people with particular vulnerabilities will not be required to participate in court proceedings, particularly family proceedings, in a digital way. I think the Government have been too optimistic when looking at the proportion of the population that is digitally excluded. The figure they have is that 18% of the population do not use computing equipment, but I would argue that that number is far too low. When one looks, for example, at the population using internet banking or similar sensitive issues, it is only 56%. I believe it would be helpful if it were clearly stated in the Bill that there will not be an expectation for parties to engage with any family court proceedings online and that paper channels will always be available to anyone who chooses to use them.

Amendment 6 is also part of this group. Clause 1(6) would allow the Online Procedure Rule Committee to set out circumstances under which proceedings should be transferred to a full court hearing, and therefore no longer come under the OPR. Although it may be useful to provide some clarity as to when cases can be transferred, I would be concerned if this resulted in any restriction of judicial discretion, and that any individual case could be transferred to a court hearing if it was required. The purpose of Amendment 6 is to make this point explicit in the Bill. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, Amendment 3 is in my name and in the names of my noble friend Lord Beith and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. This amendment seeks to have the Bill offer a choice to parties between filing forms and other documents under the Online Procedure Rules by electronic means or submitting them on paper. At Second Reading, the Minister said that the Government recognised,

“that not all court and tribunal users will be able to engage online and so paper routes will continue to be available for those who need them”.—[Official Report, 14/5/19; col. 1506.]

The noble and learned Lord has repeatedly said that litigants will have a choice between filing documents electronically and filing paper documents, the intention being that paper documents will be scanned into the online file and available thereafter to be accessed online if desired. That promises a perfectly acceptable arrangement, but I suggest that we need a guarantee that it is going to happen.

For many, this is a matter of considerable importance. While no doubt the electronically literate with access to computers and the internet will choose to produce and file documents online, Lord Justice Briggs, as he then was, recognised in his review the difficulties that would face litigants who are unable to use or access computers. Such difficulties are compounded by the facts that for many there are serious financial challenges in accessing online resources, and that in many areas of the country access to acceptably fast broadband is unavailable. In spite of some progress in this area, I interpose that our inability to guarantee fast broadband across the United Kingdom is shocking.

If the Government intend to ensure a choice for parties between online and paper documents, there can be no good reason for them failing to spell that out in this legislation. Whatever the Government’s good intentions may be, there is no guarantee that a future Government will honour a commitment that is not on the face of the statute. This is not a matter where a statement of intent by the Minister will satisfactorily safeguard future litigants. There can be no downside to incorporating the choice in the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Beith will introduce Amendment 4, in my name as well as his, which has the simple purpose of incorporating into the Bill an opportunity for parties to the litigation to opt by agreement to litigate by the conventional rules rather than the Online Procedure Rules. The Constitution Committee pointed out that the effect of Clause 3(1) would be that the Bill,

“thus supplies a legal basis for the displacement of conventional proceedings by online proceedings irrespective of the wishes of the parties to the claim”.

Our Amendment 4 would alter that in cases where the parties agreed to proceed by way of conventional proceedings. In particular, the availability of such an option might have substantial significance in cases where both parties wanted an oral hearing but where the application of Online Procedure Rules might remove the opportunity to have one.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has explained that his Amendment 6 would retain judicial discretion as to whether a conventional court hearing was necessary in individual cases. The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, would go further and permit the court discretion in cases of disagreement between the parties to decide which set of rules should govern the proceedings. I support the principle that, where the parties are not in agreement, the court should decide. Where parties agree, though, I suggest that as a matter of principle their agreement should be honoured. That is particularly important on the necessity for a hearing because I take the clear view, as human rights lawyers always have, that the right to a hearing in cases of serious disputes, even affecting small sums of money, should be unfettered.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 3:15, 10 Mehefin 2019

My Lords, I can easily follow my noble friend because he has said much of what needs to be said. With Amendment 4, I am trying to explore what the circumstances are in which it would be possible for people to revert to the traditional procedure rather than the online one. I am in favour of the Bill being introduced—I have called for it on many occasions and strongly support it—but the Constitution Committee has pointed out that it raises some issues that need to be clarified and sorted out, and this is one of them.

What are we trying to do here? Are we trying to create an online system that is advantageous, beneficial to the parties and much less cumbersome as well as saving time for the judicial system? Are we then going to encourage people to make use of it in the expectation that they will? The piloting of more limited projects in this area indicates that we have good reason to be optimistic. So is that what we are doing, or are we setting up a system in which it will be almost impossible to insist on conventional court proceedings even in circumstances where both parties think that is right? The question then arises whether you could have circumstances where one party to a dispute could insist, even when it was to the detriment of the other, that the more cumbersome procedure was used. I would be interested in the Minister’s comments on that question. Where both parties are quite clear that there are good reasons for a hearing in court, why should they be precluded from having one if our assumption is that this is a system that would be attractive to users and make the court system function more effectively, particularly in large numbers of money claims of relatively modest size?

One of the ambiguities that surrounds this Bill is what it is really for—whether it is the route to a very wide use of online systems or whether it will be confined in this way. Different statements at different stages of the Bill’s progress have had both a narrow and a wide interpretation. Although Briggs referred to money claims, I think there are wider expectations that make these general issues rather important.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

My Lords, I support what has been said by the noble Lords, Lord Marks and Lord Beith. I declare an interest as a barrister practising in offline courts. That was the reason I did not participate at Second Reading.

The Briggs report has been referred to, which said at paragraph 6.13 that there are persons,

“living mainly in rural areas with no access to broadband, those who cannot afford a lap-top or desk-top computer, and those who for a variety of understandable reasons regard moving to computer after a life spent communicating on paper a step too far”.

I agree with previous speakers that it is unacceptable that the Bill says nothing about such potential litigants. The Minister accepts that their interests must be accommodated—they need to be accommodated in the Bill.

That is the view of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, on which I served with the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. Our report said at paragraph 16 that, against the background of what was said by Briggs,

“forcing people to choose between online proceedings or not pursuing legal claims at all risks excluding large numbers of people from the justice system”.

For that reason, your Lordships’ Constitution Committee has recommended that the Bill must place duties on the Lord Chancellor to ensure that adequate provision is made to enable access for the sorts of people I have mentioned.

Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing)

My Lords, Amendment 10 in my name gives the right to respond, in addition to the person initiating the claim, to choose whether the new procedure applies. Amendment 11 then provides that, in the event of disagreement between the parties, the relevant court or tribunal will determine which course to follow—the matter just referred to by the noble Lord. Indeed, I concur with all the issues raised by the three Members of your Lordships’ House who have spoken already in this debate.

I confess that my drafting is somewhat less than elegant, but this is an important issue, given the difficulty that many will have with an online process, stemming from unfamiliarity with the process or medical or mental health issues. The report of the Constitution Committee of 7 June, to which reference has just been made, raises serious concerns about the process that go beyond the matters referred to in these amendments but are most apposite to them.

The committee declares:

“It is unsatisfactory for legislation to be drafted in a way that fails to acknowledge the fundamental right to a fair hearing, both at common law and under the European Convention on Human Rights. While ministers may have no intention of using the powers provided by the Bill to undermine the right to an oral hearing, it is incumbent on Parliament to frame the powers it confers in a way that acknowledges and respects fundamental constitutional principles”.

The committee expresses its concern that,

“the Bill confers broad powers on ministers to limit oral hearings in a much wider range of cases than is currently envisaged”, and suggests:

“One way to secure appropriate control over this power would be to require not just consultation with the Lord Chief Justice, or the Senior President of Tribunals where appropriate, but their concurrence”, in those proposals. In other words, consultation has to be taken seriously in these circumstances—perhaps more seriously than in most, given what is at stake here for the workings of our legal system.

Photo of Baroness Drake Baroness Drake Llafur

My Lords, I support the intentions of Amendments 1 and 6 in the name of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby and Amendments 10 and 11 in the name of my noble friend Lord Beecham. In summary, they remove the potential requirement that people must choose between online proceedings and not pursuing legal claims, strengthen judicial discretion on the need for a full court hearing and protect the right of parties to proceedings to seek oral hearings.

It is right that courts and tribunals be modernised, but in utilising new technologies access to justice must not be undermined. The impact assessment notes that the conventional economic rationale for government intervention is based on efficiency or equity arguments. The rationale here is efficiency, referencing,

“outdated processes … costly for both the Government and court users”.

A reliance on an efficiency rationale must not prejudice access to justice, but I fear that that is the Bill’s potential impact. Clauses 1 to 3 give Ministers extremely broad powers to replace traditional proceedings with online ones, allowing for the possibility of online proceedings being the only option in the absence of Clause 3 regulation permitting a person to choose between online or conventional proceedings.

The Minister can give assurances as to the Government’s intentions but they are not binding over time. The Government argue that additional safeguards are not needed, but the Online Procedure Rule Committee’s powers will be far greater than those of any existing rule committees. Indeed, concerns about access to justice are heightened because the Bill confers powers to limit oral hearings in a wider range of cases than was envisaged by Lord Justice Briggs’s recommendation to introduce an online court to resolve low-value civil money claims. I quote the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, at Second Reading:

“Effectively, this Bill covers all non-criminal proceedings … this is a serious, wide-ranging Bill with wide-ranging consequences”.—[Official Report, 14/5/19; col. 1511.]

It may be argued that protecting access to justice is implicit in the Bill, but I believe that Parliament needs greater confidence; it should not rest on judicial intervention or ministerial assurance to address concerns about ministerial powers. I recall the Minister addressing this House on the draft Employment Tribunals and Employment Appeal Tribunal Fees Order 2013 in response to concerns that such fees would restrict access to justice. He asserted:

“We believe that the mitigations we have put in place will properly protect access to justice for those seeking to bring claims”.—[Official Report, 8/7/13; col. 85.]

In July 2017, the Supreme Court unanimously held that, as the order prevented access to justice, tribunal fees were unlawful and must be quashed with immediate effect.

As many noble Lords have said, curtailing the use of oral hearings will have a particular impact on access to justice for vulnerable court users with limited digital means, digital literacy and general literacy skills. The Constitution Committee observed that,

“the Office for National Statistics concluded that … 5.3 million adults in the UK … could be characterised as ‘internet non-users’”.

However, the committee noted that this figure may understate the problem. It said:

“Such figures do not take into account those with limited digital skills, for whom basic browsing and messaging may be within their capabilities but the complexity of online legal forms may not”.

People with limited general literacy skills will be disadvantaged by proceedings conducted solely in writing without access to oral hearings. As has been referred to, the charity Mind reports how people with mental health problems are disproportionately likely to experience digital exclusion, struggle with digital engagement and are nearly twice as likely to experience legal problems.

The Government’s objective is to devise new rules that will focus on users being able to solve grievances and resolve their issues online at the earliest opportunity, as well as to encourage more people to resolve disputes before they reach the hearing stage. If the Government are right in their assumptions, which are still to be tested, many people will prefer to use online proceedings voluntarily and efficiencies will be gained. However, that is not compulsion; people should retain the right to seek access to an oral hearing. Ministerial powers with the potential to require people to choose between online proceedings or not pursuing legal claims carry the real risk of incompatibility with the principle of access to justice. Amendments 1, 6, 10 and 11 seek to address that risk.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Ceidwadwyr 3:30, 10 Mehefin 2019

My Lords, the Government’s view was expressed at Second Reading, but Amendment 1 seems to strike at the heart of what is required. Clause 1 states,

“may authorise or require the parties”. to use electronic means at hearings. That suggests the possibility of compulsion that would not exclude any section of the community. The amendment I find slightly difficult is Amendment 3, which states,

“may be filed by electronic means or on paper or a combination of both at the choice of the party”.

I would have thought that it should be one thing or the other. I imagine that it might cause confusion if you have an electronic bit and then a bit on paper stuck in, unless there is a clear way of showing in the electronic bit that there is another bit to follow. It is that part of the amendment that I find slightly difficult.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

My Lords, I am reminded that these provisions will apply to family law procedures. Of course, it may improve the resolution of family issues, which will benefit the children involved, but there is a concern that it may make resolution more difficult and thus adversely affect the children in those families. Has the family test been applied to the Bill? I do not see that in the accompanying notes and perhaps it is not appropriate to apply the family test to it. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me whether the family test has been applied.

Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice)

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 1, 3, 4, 6, 10 and 11, which relate to the operation of the online procedure and how we can ensure that people using it are not disadvantaged. I intend to turn first to Amendment 3, which covers whether a user can choose between digital and paper channels. Then I will move on to Amendments 1, 4, 6, 10 and 11, pertaining to the online procedure and the matter of choice.

Amendment 3 suggests that claimants and respondents should have the choice of whether to use paper or digital channels when engaged in the simplified online procedure. I can confirm that the Government agree with this point, and indeed there is provision for this already. Essentially, where the online procedure comes into place, it will be possible to access it either by way of the digital portal or by way of a written document of claim. Other written documents may also be used when employing the simplified online procedure. The intention, which already applies to some of the digital procedures we have in place for small debt, is that the document will be scanned into the system and will therefore be part of the process. The idea is to ensure that parties are not excluded from the simplified procedure that will be brought in under this online procedure simply because they feel unable to employ, or are incapable of employing, the digital process itself. However, there is a distinction between that and the situation in which, when dealing with debt claims of under £25,000 for example, a claimant or any other party would be allowed to opt either for the simplified procedure that will be promulgated under the online procedure or to have recourse to the existing Civil Procedure Rules and the more complex procedure that pertains there. It is not intended under the Bill that claimants should have an option between the simplified procedure and the more complex procedure. I shall come on to develop that a little more in a moment.

Perhaps I may take this opportunity to confirm that we have no plans to remove the availability of paper channels for citizens under the remit of the Online Procedure Rule Committee. Of course, it is our intention to create a digital service that will be easy to access and use—indeed, so easy to access and use that it becomes the default choice for the majority of users. We recognise, however, that not everyone will be able to use it, or wish to proceed with that digital choice without support. For that reason, a paper route will remain open.

We want to be clear that users can expect an equity of service, regardless of whether they proceed with a digital approach or a written claim. Where different parties choose different channels, we will seamlessly join them together by means of a scanning and printing service, so users who want to send and receive papers will still have that choice—they will not need to resort to the online portal. To that extent, I offer my assurance that paper channels are still available and will be available under the Online Procedure Rules. The Bill will do nothing to remove them.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

Does the Minister accept that nothing in the Bill guarantees that? He gives us an assurance, but surely it would be better to write that into the Bill.

Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice)

If every time we legislated we decided to guarantee everything from A to Z, we would end up with very long Bills. The position is this: there is the ability to proceed by way of the paper process. Nothing prohibits it, there is no inhibition on that process, and there is no intention to introduce such an inhibition.

Turning to Amendments 10 and 11—

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Ceidwadwyr

Before my noble and learned friend leaves Amendment 3, I understood him to say he would accept it, so that it would go into the Bill—although without, I hope, the choice of the combination.

Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice)

No, I do not accept the amendment. What I say is that there are existing means by which we can assure people that they can proceed by way of a digital portal or by way of a written claim, which will be scanned and taken into the online procedure process once it is up and running.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way again, but I must press him. We are dealing here with fundamental issues of access to justice. Surely if the Minister recognises that paper procedures must always be available to litigants, it is absolutely vital that the Bill says so.

Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice)

I am afraid I cannot accept that. There is nothing in the Bill that would prohibit the employment of such a paper process once the online procedure is up and running. Indeed, the noble Lord will appreciate that, when it comes to the making of rules by the relevant committee, the process will involve the judiciary as well as the Executive.

We have heard reference already to the idea of consultation, and we will in due course look at amendments to the Bill that seek to shift the question of consultation to one of concurrence. Therefore, we will be in a position to rely on not only any decision-making on the part of the Executive but also the contribution of the judiciary to how it sees that these processes should best be applied in the interest of all litigants. I emphasise “all litigants” because, when we seek to simplify the court process and reduce its potential cost, we are doing so for the benefit of litigants in general. We will come to concurrence and consultation later.

We must bear in mind that this is not a case of Ministers dictating what the relevant rules will be. It is a case of the Executive setting out the machinery by which a rule committee can come into place and set out appropriate rules and regulations for the online procedure, in consultation with the judiciary and with its input, and potentially with its concurrence.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

I am sorry to press the point, but does the Minister accept that without the guarantee in the Bill of his intention, we could lose this procedure at some stage in the future, and that this House may well wish to see that guarantee entrenched in the Bill, so that primary legislation would be necessary to remove the procedure?

Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice)

I quite see that this House might wish to see it in primary legislation, but the position is this: a committee will be formed to put forward appropriate rules and regulations for the online procedure, under the essential supervision not only of the Executive but of the judiciary. There may come a point, at some unforeseeable time in the future, where the judiciary is of the view that it is no longer necessary to employ paper as a form of application or entry into the judicial process. I do not anticipate that happening—there is nothing here to suggest it will happen—and I do not see that there is a requirement for such a guarantee in the form of primary legislation. We intend to form an Online Procedure Rule Committee that will be well qualified to determine the appropriate routes into the online procedure for all parties concerned, including those perhaps not digitally competent or confident. That remains the position.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Judge

Perhaps I may press the Minister on one point. It is easy to see that there is a distinction between an online procedure and the way the court works. If it was made clear that the online procedure is largely geared to ensuring that the systems that lie behind it operate efficiently across the system but that, in using that procedure, if people did not want to go online the court would undertake to scan the documents in—if that distinction was made—would the Minister accept that what really is needed, because these amendments do not grapple with the problem, is a guarantee to the litigant that he can go to court, hand in a piece of paper and it will be scanned into the system? That is all.

If that is the effect of these amendments—and it is limited to that—would that not achieve everything and give an opportunity to increase access to justice? In the current system access to justice is a figment of the imagination, but the use of an online procedure would enable this to happen. Will the Minister look at this issue again in the light of my suggestion to him?

Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice)

I hear what the noble and learned Lord has said and I will take account of those observations in going forward to the next stage of the Bill. However, at present it is not my intention to accept any of the amendments so far laid in respect of this matter. If there is a way through by which we can underline the right of a party to make an application on paper to the relevant online procedure once it is up and running, that would essentially achieve the objective that we have and I believe the House has. However, I do not accept that it will be achieved by means of the present amendments.

Photo of Baroness Corston Baroness Corston Llafur

The Minister will know that in a recent Constitution Committee meeting we discussed the Bill with him at length. If there is to be no indication in the Bill that there is a possibility of making a paper application to the court, what advice or direction will be given to this Committee to make it plain that there will be that advice? We know that a significant proportion of the population of this country might be able to use email but cannot use on online form.

Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice)

We intend to appoint a committee of experts to formulate these rules, including judicial members. They will have regard to the need for access to justice. Certainly, we have confidence in the ability of such a committee to formulate rules that reflect the need for all members of the community to have access, not only those who are perhaps more digitally alert and astute than the minority. We lay our confidence in the fact that there will be such a committee, that it will make regulations and that it will do it under the aegis of not only the Executive but the judiciary, and the Lord Chief Justice in particular.

Photo of Baroness Drake Baroness Drake Llafur

Does the Minister accept that Clause 7 gives the Minister powers to override or disallow the views of the Online Procedure Rule Committee? However meritorious its views, the Minister would have the power to override them.

Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice)

There are circumstances in which the Minister may give directions to the committee—I accept that—and that reflects the current position with regard to the other rule committees already in existence, including the tribunal rules, the civil rules and the criminal rules. It exists by way of an executive direction and is there for good reason as a fallback. I understand that the power has been used only once with regard to the existing committees, to address a potential anomaly in the existing rules. It is an exceptional power but it is there because it reflects the existing power in the provisions for the other rule committees.

Photo of Lord Woolf Lord Woolf Crossbench

I apologise for not being at Second Reading but perhaps the Minister will indulge me by helping me with the purpose of Clause 1(1)(a), which states:

“For proceedings of a specified kind, there are to be procedural rules which … must require that kind of proceedings, or one or more aspects of that kind of proceedings, to be initiated by electronic means”.

Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice) 3:45, 10 Mehefin 2019

It is to ensure that where, for example, there are debt actions below a certain level—let us take a figure of £25,000—they must be initiated by way of the Online Procedure Rules, the simplified procedural rules, rather than by way of the existing Civil Procedure Rules. It is for that purpose that the paragraph is there. In other words, it will not be open to a party who wants to make a small debt claim to decide they want to use the more complex and potentially more expensive Civil Procedure Rules as distinct from the Online Procedure Rules and the simplified procedure that goes with them.

I shall address Amendments 10 and 11, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, alongside Amendment 4, which I believe was tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Marks and Lord Beith, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, as well as Amendments 1 and 6, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby.

Amendments 1 and 6 concern the continued availability of physical proceedings rather than online proceedings. Amendment 4 seeks to allow the parties to proceedings to choose whether to engage with the online procedure or the current procedural rules. This is a point that I just sought to touch upon. Amendments 10 and 11 are intended to deal with those cases where one party wishes to leave the online procedure, but another does not.

This is not what the Bill is intended to achieve. The Bill provides the flexibility for a case to progress via the online rules, or via the traditional rules of the civil procedure if necessary. Where a case is so complex that that the online procedure is clearly inappropriate, it will be for the judge to determine, and he will have the discretion to do so, whether a case should remain within the online procedure or should proceed by way of the traditional civil rules instead. Where both parties make a representation that the case should not proceed by way of the online procedure, then of course the court will hear those representations and take them into account, but ultimately it will be for the court to decide the appropriate procedure for the disposal of any claim. That is as it should be and is as it is with regard to our existing civil procedures. Ultimately, it is for the court to make these procedural decisions, not for the parties to dictate them, but of course their views will be taken into account. Equally, where parties, or one party, are of the view that an oral hearing will be required in circumstances where it might not ordinarily have been anticipated, it will be open to that party, or the parties if they are agreed, to make those representations to the court in order that the court can make the final decision about the appropriate procedure to be employed. Again, that is as it should be. It is ultimately for the court to decide the most appropriate process and procedure for the disposal of individual claims.

Under Amendment 4, users would in effect have the right to choose whether to use the Online Procedure Rules or the traditional rules. Similar points are made in the other amendments. We do not consider that that is the appropriate way to proceed. Users will have sufficient control over proceedings to ensure that they have access to justice, which will not be limited in any way, and certainly not in a way that would intrude upon any rights under Article 6 of the convention.

The online procedure system is simply designed to offer the ordinary user an easier way to access justice, while giving parties the choice to remain in a position to make paper applications to the online simplified procedure rather than engage with the digital portal. I reassure noble Lords that we are not seeking to impinge in any way upon the parties’ right of access to justice, but ultimately we must leave it to the court to determine procedural questions brought before it, albeit that it will make those decisions subject to the representations by or on behalf of the parties to the proceedings.

As I mentioned in passing and in response to the noble Lord, Lord Beith, where a physical hearing arises, it will be for the parties to make representations. Ultimately, it will be for the court to determine on the material before it whether such a physical, oral hearing is required for the disposal of a case. That, I suggest, is as it should be.

I hope that that also reassures the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, with regard to judicial discretion. That, ultimately, is paramount, and nothing in the Bill or that we would anticipate in the regulations to be made pursuant to the powers under the Bill would undermine that judicial discretion, which ultimately has be exercised in the interests of justice and for the benefit of the parties. With that, I hope that the noble Lord will consider whether at this stage it is appropriate to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

My Lords, before that happens, I express my apologies for not being able to take part at Second Reading. I thank the Minister for asking his office to contact me and I am sorry that I delayed replying until Friday. I just want to comment on the family test. This was introduced in 2014 to be applied to Bills and involved a number of questions such as, “What kind of impact might the policy have on family formation?” and “What kind of impact might it have on stability in the family?” Although the test is not mandatory, this seems an appropriate Bill to have had it applied to, and I simply express the wish that in the future it might be applied to Bills similar to this one.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I have some difficulty with Amendment 1 and the answer that my noble and learned friend has given. As I understand it, the amendment deals with rules. It is not judicial discretion but rules that may require the parties to participate in the hearing by means of electronic devices. Therefore, it is not a question of the judge in charge of the case making that decision; the preliminary rules will require it, and the judge will be bound by that. He will say that he is sorry to whoever comes along with a bit of paper and explain that they are not able to do that because the rules dictate that it has to be done by electronic means, so they will have to get themselves a computer.

Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice)

With respect to my noble and learned friend, my understanding of the position is that the rules will require that certain forms of action—for example, small debt action—should be commenced under the simplified Online Procedure Rules by way of the digital portal, whether you go through electronically or, as I mentioned before, by way of a paper application. However, once that process is in train, there will be a retained judicial discretion to decide whether the case should remain under the simplified online procedure or whether it would be more appropriate for it to be removed from that procedure and to proceed under the ordinary Civil Procedure Rules to an oral hearing.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Llafur

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who took part in this short debate, which has covered quite a wide area. I understand the point made by the Minister about these being civil actions for relatively small amounts of money, and not having the discretion as regards initiating proceedings on paper if that were the case. Although this is the main focus of the Bill now, it has wider connotations—a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. Some of us, including myself, are thinking about this from other perspectives such as the family jurisdiction.

When addressing Amendment 4, the noble Lord, Lord Marks, made an interesting point, asking what happens when both parties agree to proceed with online proceedings. I thought he intimated that there should be an expectation that they would indeed go ahead with online proceedings. Certainly, from the perspective of somebody who sits in the family jurisdiction, I would say that that would not be appropriate. Whether matters go ahead either online or otherwise should be retained as a judicial decision because it is not unusual for parties to agree to something that is inappropriate in the family courts; the court needs to take a separate view.

Having said that, I thank the Minister for addressing the points; I suspect we will return to them at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.