Justice reform

The new legal year has been marked by the publishing of over 400 recommendations to reform civil and family justice in Northern Ireland following a two-year review.

In total 404 recommendations were published in two reports detailing “transformative change” for the justice systems announced by the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Declan Morgan, and Court of Appeal judge, Lord Justice Gillen.

The reform blueprint sets out ambitions to improve access to and outcomes of justice, especially for children and young people. It also suggests the creation of a more responsive and efficient system, fully utilising available resources such as new technology.

Both authors acknowledged that the changes would be incremental, highlighting that finances and political approval will be required to implement many of the proposals.

Overarching themes in both reports include a commitment to move to paperless courts, a result of a greater use of technology. Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan announced the creation of a Family Justice Board and Civil Justice Council to oversee the proposed changes.

Family

The most notable recommendations in family justice centre is around the creation of new courts. As well as the creation of a single family court to replace the existing Family Proceedings Court and Family Care Centre, the report also recommended a “fresh culture of problem-solving courts” including a drug and alcohol and a domestic violence court to bring together civil and criminal matters.

Greater efficiency will see increased emphasis on solutions outside of court, including more accessible mediation and educative parenting programmes in private law cases involving children, focussing on child wellbeing. While also centralising case management around children, with the ability to accurately fast-track contact disputes and non-accidental injury, reducing the delay in achieving permanent outcomes for children.

Greater utilisation of digital should see more virtual reality courts and a pilot for online dispute resolution around divorce for example.

Civil

Digitalisation plays a major role in the recommended reforms for the civil justice system including increased virtual court proceedings and online dispute resolution of low-value money claims. Modernisation of court procedures will include efficient use of social media, electronic banking and court officers. It is proposed that the Lord Chief Justice could utilise Twitter to advise of judgments and to provide a synopsis and link to each judgment.

The report suggests the introduction of fixed fees in the High Court and a new, narrower approach to disclosure and a wider approach to alternative dispute resolution.

As well as a greater degree of scrutiny on court experts, the report also recommends the greater accommodation of the needs of personal litigants rather than entirely around a lawyer-led process and greater emphasis on access to justice for those with disabilities.

New methods of appeal to the Court of Appeal have been suggested, as has increasing the jurisdiction in the county court, district judges’ court and the small claims court, with the creation of exclusive civil proceedings in three centres.

The creation of a new business hub in the High Courts will embrace the Commercial, Chancery and Judicial Review courts and power should be dispensed to the Lands Tribunal to give it jurisdiction over disputed valuation.

Finally, the civil report recommends the Department of Justice brings forward legislation to re-constitute the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service as a non-ministerial department.

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