Justice in Wales for the People of Wales: commission report

On 24 October 2019 the Commission on Justice in Wales published its review into the Welsh justice system.  In 2017 the then First Minister Carwyn Jones announced he was establishing the Commission with the aim of setting a long term vision for the future of the system.

Devolution of Justice

Currently justice is a reserved matter, allowing Westminster to authorise reductions in the budget for justice, which has resulted in the Welsh Government generating additional funding to facilitate access to justice as a result of this tighter budget. Currently 40% of the justice budget in Wales in sourced in Wales.[1] The Welsh Government is not obliged to provide this additional funding.

The Commission advised that justice should be determined and delivered in Wales so that it mirrors the distinct and developing body of Welsh law.

It was noted in the report that significant issues arise from the split between two governments and legislatures, particularly as Westminster retains responsibility for justice whilst the Welsh Government has responsibility for social, health, education and economic development polices. The Commission believes this divide is responsible for a lack of accountability and an inefficient use of resources due to levels of complexity. The Commission advises that the only way to address this issue is to establish full legislative devolution with executive powers that would place justice at the heart of Welsh Government.

Legal Sector

The Commission examined the legal sector in Wales. It noted that the 2012 legal aid cuts have resulted in “advice deserts” where people in rural parts of Wales have limited access to legal advice. The implication of this is an increased number of litigants in person. Currently the responsibility of legal aid provision resides in Westminster, with the Commission expressing the view that that this arrangement does not consider the needs of people in Wales. The Commission advised addressing this shortfall with an increased physical and digital access to justice which would be available in both English and Welsh language.

The wider Welsh legal sector was considered by the Commission. It was noted that there had been missed opportunities to establish South Wales as an area with a prosperous legal sector. The Commission advised that the Welsh Government should work with professional bodies to develop this aim with the intention of increasing the export of legal services.

A range of recommendations were put forward to ensure that Welsh legal matters are issued and heard in Wales. It was recommended that it should be compulsory for action against a Welsh public body against the lawfulness of a decision be issued and heard in Wales. Additionally, it was recommended that challenges to inquests relating to deaths in Wales must be heard in Wales, with further recommendations for a Welsh Coroner Service to be established to ensure uniform standards and services.

Criminal justice

The criminal justice system in Wales was a key area of exploration for the Commission. It was recognised that mental health is currently not addressed by the system. Of particular concern was that a greater proportion of funding reserved for justice is spent on prisons than was spent on crime reduction in Wales.  This is noteworthy as in 2017 Wales had the highest prison population in Western Europe.[2]

To address this issue the Commission recommended the establishment of problem-solving courts in the justice system which address drug and alcohol dependency.

Welsh Language

The report highlights that currently English and Welsh language are not treated equally in the justice system, particularly in the Coronial system where Coroners in Wales are unable to issue documents in Welsh.

Welsh language as an aspect of legal education was explored with recommendations that the Bar, CILEx, and the Law Society provide courses on using Welsh language in the workplace. Additionally, legal education for those who desire to practice in Wales should be available in Welsh language. The lack of Welsh language teaching materials in Welsh law schools was identified and the Commission recommended that law schools in Wales should collaborate to address this.

The future of justice in Wales

The long-term vision for the justice system in Wales was set out in the report with aims to develop the Welsh devolution model from a reserved powers model into the establishment of full legislative devolution model with executive powers.

A particular aspect of the vision was that Welsh law should be formally identified as independent of English law, this reflects the view of the Commission that further divergence is inevitable. This approach would also address the current confusion caused by English and Welsh law being held to be part of the same legal system.

Conclusion

The report identifies that the people of Wales deserve a better justice system. Recommendations have been made to address this at all levels. It is hoped that the unanimous conclusions of the Commissioners will develop an innovative justice system that is able to serve the people of Wales.

The Commission’s report can be found here.

[1] Page 2

[2] “ Wales has highest incarceration rate in Western Europe” Steven Morris, Wednesday 16 January 2019 < https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/jan/16/wales-has-highest-incarceration-rate-in-western-europe-prison-population-england > accessed 24.10.2019


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