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MA national chair gives evidence to Justice Select Committee

Special evidence session

29 January 2021
MA national chair gives evidence to Justice Select Committee

National chair of the MA, Bev Higgs, gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee on 12 January 2021 in a special evidence session on court capacity and the future of legal aid. Speaking about the current court safety measures, Bev praised the upgraded cleaning regime and clear messaging about wearing masks and sanitisation, crediting these practices with contributing to the number of cases being heard in magistrates’ courts. The arrival of Perspex screens at the end of 2020 has allowed the return to benches of three in some areas, while reducing multiple listings to single listings to allow staff to manage the flow of court participants more safely.

Bev highlighted the importance of magistrates’ morale, and spoke of knock-on effects of challenges facing the mentoring, appraisal and training system. She praised magistrates for doing an ‘amazing job’ in difficult circumstances, acknowledging the challenges of conducting remote hearings, including technology issues (particularly as magistrates are using their own IT equipment without HMCTS support) and cases taking longer. She also pointed out how remote hearings can feel impersonal and disengaging, particularly for victims. Bev emphasised the importance of carefully evaluating any measures established as a reaction to the pandemic before they are implemented in the longer term.

Regarding delays, Bev referred to the MA’s recent AGM motion to call for defendants offending at 17 to be dealt with in the youth jurisdiction even if they turn 18 before their case is heard, adding that the pandemic means that ‘more people will be falling into that net’.

Bev presented an overview of the results of our recent members’ survey on extended court hours, adding that any change would require the co-operation of other court practitioners. She also mentioned incidences of case management decisions being made by legal advisers, which might be ‘efficient, expedient and right’ in the current circumstances, but that should normally be an open process.

When asked about legal aid, Bev spoke about the increased lack of representation in the family jurisdiction and the challenges this poses, explaining that the potential for a lack of access to justice and fairness of justice are exacerbated by the pandemic. She noted this was particularly the case for people who have vulnerabilities, adding that a bench should be able to make a legal aid direction if they come across someone who is particularly vulnerable, neurodiverse or has learning difficulties. Bev also raised the issue of digital exclusion, adding that this should be borne in mind in relation to the common platform, which currently lacks any provision for litigants in person to be able to access data. You can watch the session here.

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