The principles of justice with which we will all be familiar – including equality under the law and fair treatment – are key components to making Wales a just, equal, diverse and prosperous nation. Justice permeates so many aspects of the lives of the people of Wales, and the effective delivery of justice is crucial to the way in which each one of us can make our voices heard and can enforce our basic rights.
For many years, the Welsh Government has argued that justice should be devolved to Wales, and we continue to pursue this as part of our programme for government. We believe that taking decisions about justice here in Wales will lead to better outcomes, by properly aligning justice with our distinct and developing social, health and education policies and the growing body of Welsh law.
In Delivering Justice for Wales, we set out some of the many innovative ways in which justice is currently being delivered in Wales, and why securing change is of a fundamental concern to the Welsh Government.
As we pursue change, however, we must also use our existing areas of responsibility as benchmarks of what can be achieved. Whilst the courts and tribunals system that operates in Wales is generally not devolved; Wales has its own small but significant body of devolved tribunals. As the independent Commission on Justice in Wales chaired by Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd noted:
“…the Welsh tribunals and their administration should be seen and treated as part of Wales’ own emergent judicial system” (Commission on Justice in Wales report).
A tribunal is an efficient and accessible forum for dispute resolution, in some cases offering important protections against unfair action by the state and in other cases a means for individuals to resolve their private legal disputes. Although often more informal than a court, they are no longer seen as an arm of government but rightly as an integral part of the judicial system.
Our devolved tribunals are each governed by stand-alone legislative frameworks. In practical terms, this has designed gaps and inconsistencies into the tribunal system in Wales as it stands today. This is not because that has been the intention. Rather, it is by default because tribunals have developed piecemeal over many years. Recent developments have seen the creation of the office of the President of Welsh Tribunals by the Wales Act 2017. But that legislation overlays the existing frameworks and does not create a coherent whole.
We are focused on ensuring devolved elements of the justice system are an exemplar of what Wales can achieve. Tribunal reform is fundamental to this ambition. The Law Commission has set out a blueprint for reform (Devolved Tribunals in Wales) and the proposals contained in this White Paper build on the Law Commission’s findings and recommendations.
We propose to bring our separate devolved tribunals into a unified and coherent structure comprising of a First-tier Tribunal for Wales and – for the first time in Welsh legal history - an Appeal Tribunal for Wales. Our proposals will also build flexibility into the tribunal system, so that as devolved law continues to grow, further routes of appeal can be absorbed with very little disruption, enabling our tribunal justice infrastructure to grow and evolve over time.
We want to ensure everyone in Wales is treated fairly and equally, including in relation to access to justice. Our proposals for reform further these commitments. In implementing our proposals to create a new structure for Wales’ tribunals our objective is twofold. First, to create a modern tribunal system for Wales focused on access to justice and the needs of tribunal users who can be confident the system operates with independence and in a way that adjudicates on their disputes justly, efficiently and expeditiously. Second, to lay the foundation for a future where justice is devolved, and Wales administers its own wider system of courts and tribunals.
We look forward to hearing your views on our proposals, and we value your opinion.
Mick Antoniw AS / MS
Y Cwnsler Cyffredinol a Gweinidog y Cyfansoddiad
Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution