Muzzled thinking

Jeremy BeechamJeremy Beecham on the government’s plans to abolish the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council

The fate of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council (AJTC) is not something likely to excite the wider population. It was however, debated at length during the passage of the Public Bodies Bill, which lit the torch for the government’s proclaimed bonfire of the quangos. And deep concern was expressed by among others a raft of former Tory Ministers.

Administrative justice as a feature of our legal system has grown in importance over the years, in response to the need to offer an accessible means of redress for citizens wishing to challenge the decisions of public bodies.  

The Public Administration Select Committee pointed to the high level of successful appeals across the system, declaring: “this poor decision-making results in injustice to individuals and costs to the taxpayer on a scale the PASC finds unacceptable. The role of the AJTC in providing an independent overview is therefore one of vital national importance overseeing a system that protects the rights of millions of citizens every year”. Many of these concerns were echoed by the Justice Select Committee, which called for the government to reconsider its decision.

As Tory Peer Lord Newton pointed out during the original Bill debates, administrative justice is not confined to tribunals, and extends beyond the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) brief to “local authorities, to important areas of administrative justice including, in education school admissions and exclusion appeals ... [and also] the whole area of decriminalised parking”. He then went on: “the MoJ knows nothing and frankly as far as I can judge cares less”.

Ministers have now shifted the basis of their argument for abolishing the AJTC to one of cost, yet the savings they predict are minimal - £700,000 per year. And where is the evidence that the MoJ has the capacity to press on with improving the system, securing better decision making and reducing the need for appeals. This after all, is the government department responsible for both the fiasco of the interpretation service and the recently exposed disaster of electronic tagging contracts. 

Moreover, how can Ministers justify absorbing an independent body with a remit to oversee the whole system and advise government? The Administrative Justice Advisory Group set up by the MoJ is not a satisfactory alternative having, in the words of evidence to the Public Administration Committee, “no status, standing or budget of its own”. It also lacks a chair and secretariat, is dependent on MoJ policy staff, and only meets twice a year.

The AJTC points to a predicted nearly 100% increase in tribunals for Social Security and Child Support, to 807,000, by 2015/16, as illustrating the future pressures on the system – all exacerbated by the wholesale reduction of access to legal aid and advice. 

Tellingly, the AJTC says “there are disturbing signs that the MoJ explicitly sees the use of these fees as a mechanism to reduce demand on the tribunals system”. Worse still, it concludes: “there is an inevitable risk that those who have access to the levers of power may yield to the temptation to use them to exclude or restrict challenges. Effective oversight is necessary both to ensure that temptation is resisted and also to create confidence amongst citizens that it will be”. 

Put another way, abolishing the AJTC will leave citizens with a watchdog equipped with neither bark nor bite.

Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords

Published 22nd July 2013

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