Birmingham Law Society Criminal Law Committee
The views of criminal law professionals across the Midlands have been represented in a landmark parliamentary report on access to justice in England and Wales thanks to the work of the Birmingham Law Society Criminal Law Committee.
Birmingham Law Society (BLS) is committed to championing the voices of its members on the issues that matter in the Midlands.
As the Chair of the BLS Criminal Law Committee, I was therefore honored to be invited to give oral evidence to the recent inquiry by the parliamentary cross-party Justice Select Committee into the impact of the £1bn programme of court reforms launched in 2016 by HM Courts and Tribunals Services (HMCTS).
The resulting report, published on 31 October, contains several references to this oral submission, as well as to the comprehensive written response made by my committee.
In our evidence, we outlined the key issues affecting criminal justice in the Midlands - including the potential impact of the digital reforms being implemented by HMCTS (such as the development of an online plea system), as well as the impact on access to justice of staffing cuts and widespread court closures.
We also submitted substantial evidence relating to the increasing use of live video link technology in court - an issue that is particularly pertinent to the Midlands, with HMCTS currently piloting applications by video link to set aside default judgments in Birmingham Civil Justice Centres.
Senior District Judge/Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot cited in the report the “very strong views” held on this matter by our members, with our position that “the first hearing in a not guilty case cannot be held by video link, as it [is] not possible to have the necessary case management” being directly referenced.
The Justice Committee report concludes that the HMCTS programme “risks excluding the most vulnerable in our society from access to justice” - a statement with which we at Birmingham Law Society agree wholeheartedly.
While efforts by HMCTS to introduce efficiencies and improve the court system in England and Wales are to be embraced, any unintended consequences on fairness and access to justice should be challenged.
I am proud of the work done by the BLS Criminal Law Committee to champion the voice of the legal community in the Midlands.
The fact that the views of our members are reflected so thoroughly in the Justice Select Committee report is testament to the potential of Birmingham Law Society to influence government policy, and in doing so, to affect meaningful change that will benefit not only the legal profession, but the Midlands region as a whole.