Tribunal Reform in Wales: A Stepping Stone?
The Welsh Government has confirmed that there will be a consultation that will inform future legislation to establish a single, unified tribunal system for Wales.
The intention of the reform will be to improve coherence in the system and improve people’s access to justice. The Welsh Government will introduce a white paper in the coming months to set out the reform. White papers are policy documents created by the Government that set out its plans for future legislation. They may include a draft version of a Bill that is being planned, which serves as a basis for further consultation and discussion.
Background and Context
Authority over the justice system in Wales is generally held by the UK government; however, Wales has a number of devolved tribunals, which operate under their own legislation: including mental health, agriculture and the Welsh Language, known collectively as the ‘Welsh Tribunals’, and operating under the supervision of the President of Welsh Tribunals. There are also others, which operate outside of the group, such as school admission and exclusion appeal panels.
The announcement by the Welsh Government comes following reports by the Independent Commission on Justice in Wales in 2019, and the Law Commission’s report Devolved Tribunals in Wales in 2022, which both recommended tribunal reform, resulting in one unified system in Wales. The Independent Commission on Justice in Wales recommended that tribunals that determine disputes in both civil and administrative law should be under one unified system. Whilst the Law Commission’s report called for the creation of a unified system comprising a First-Tier Tribunal divided into chambers and an Appeal Tribunal for Wales.
Delivering Justice for Wales
In May 2022, the Welsh Government set out its approach to reforming the justice system of Wales in May 2022: https://www.gov.wales/sites/default/files/publications/2022-06/delivering-justice-for-wales-may-2022-v2.pdf
Delivering Justice for Wales outlines a number of measures to be taken, including:
• Reforming the devolved tribunals;
• creating a unified system for devolved tribunals;
• broadening the scope of the tribunal service;
• creating an appeal tribunal;
• expanding the role of President of Welsh Tribunals; and
• safeguarding independence
The Law Commission has made 53 recommendations for reform of the devolved tribunals in Wales. They are, collectively, intended to create a single, unified and coherent system of tribunals to support:
• the development of a standardised approach for rules and procedures, including appointments of judicial and other tribunal members
• handling complaints and disciplinary issues in a consistent manner
• centralised supervisory oversight of devolved tribunals
• judicial independence and greater structural independence for the way in which tribunals are administered
• future-proofing the system of devolved tribunals to reflect the development of justice policy.
The Welsh Government welcomed the Law Commission’s report and recommendations and endorsed the fundamental principle of the recommendations made, particularly the proposal to create a new unified system of devolved tribunals in Wales.
Comments from the Counsel General
Mick Antoniw, Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, said “Bringing these tribunals together – and establishing an appellate court in Wales for the first time – will give the nation a simple, modern and fair tribunal structure. It is another step towards designing a coherent and high-performing justice system for Wales”.
He further added that “judicial independence is the guiding principle for the way in which judicial institutions are supported in Wales” and emphasised that “this will not be lost in these tribunal reforms”.
Finally, he advised that “the case for further devolution of the justice system is now well-established and we look forward to justice and policing being devolved to Wales so we can deliver a better system for citizens, communities and businesses. Until then, tribunal reform is an excellent example of how we can use the levers at our disposal now to pursue a whole-system, person-centred approach to justice”.