A new unified court system is set to be introduced in Wales to replace the current fragmented courts, the Law Commission announced today [9 December 2021].
A tribunal is a body set up to settle disputes, usually arising from decisions of public bodies. They bring justice to some of the most vulnerable people in society. But the rules and procedures of Welsh Devolved Courts are complicated and inconsistent, and in some cases, unsuited to their purpose.
To improve their administration, the Law Commission recommends a new court, the First Level Court for Wales, which would replace the existing Welsh courts. It would be divided into chambers, such as a chamber of ownership and a chamber of education.
Under the new system, the Commission also recommends:
- The creation of an Appeal Tribunal for Wales, to hear appeals from the First Tier Tribunal for Wales.
- Establishment of a court procedure committee to review and update court procedures.
- The creation of a non-departmental department to replace the current Welsh Courts Unit which will be independent of the Welsh Government and responsible for managing the courts system.
Nicholas Paines QC, Commissioner for Public and Welsh Law, said:
“The legal system in Wales is complex and outdated and does not respond effectively to the needs of the Welsh public. It is clear that an overhaul is needed.
“Our recommendations would create a single, unified court system fit for the 21st century and able to adapt to future changes.”
Problems with devolved courts in Wales
The court system in England and Wales evolved haphazardly, with courts being created whenever an individual government department deemed it necessary. Each individual tribunal was set up to tackle a specific issue, resulting in an unplanned and inflexible system. Courts were created at different times and for different purposes, resulting in gaps and inconsistencies in legislation. Processes and procedures (such as rules for appointing judges or establishing procedural rules) varied from court to court.
In 2007, an Act of the UK Parliament streamlined many courts that operate across the UK or parts of it into a single structure. But the courts that have been delegated to Wales have been left out, leaving the old fragmented system in place. The creation of the office of the President of the Welsh Courts did much to unify the courts of Wales; but there is a limit to what can be done without reforming the underlying legal structures.
The lack of coherence has prevented the court system from developing in response to the changing needs of its users. The Justice in Wales Commission identified this as an issue in 2019, recommending greater use of devolved courts in future Welsh legislation.
Law Commission Recommendations
In response to these questions, the Law Commission made a series of recommendations. These include:
- Replace the existing Welsh Courts with a Unified First Level Court for Wales, which will be divided into chambers. This system would be more flexible and able to react and adapt to future changes.
- The system would include the currently independent Wales Assessment Tribunal and school exclusion appeal boards.
- The first tier court for Wales would be made up of, among others, property, education, mental health and Welsh language chambers.
- The creation of an Appeal Tribunal for Wales, to hear appeals from the First Tier Court.
- There would also be a new route of appeal from the Education Chamber Admission Appeals Committees.
- Creation of a new Courts Procedure Committee, tasked with regularly reviewing and updating the Rules of Procedure to ensure that they respond to changing circumstances and are no longer obsolete.
- Ensure the new system operates independently of the Welsh Government. This includes:
- The creation of a new Courts Administration Service for Wales, replacing the current Welsh Courts Unit. It should be a non-ministerial department with an increased role for judges.
- A new legal obligation for Welsh ministers and all those responsible for the administration of the courts to maintain the independence of the courts.
The report was presented to the Senedd. It is now up to the Welsh Government to decide if and how to adopt the changes.