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Thursday, 16 August, 2001, 17:59 GMT 18:59 UK
'Tribunals must become independent'
Lord Irvine, Lord Chancellor
Irvine would take control of the new tribunals service
A radical shake-up is needed to make Britain's tribunals system independent and to stop the users seeing every appeal as being as difficult as an "away game", says a major new report.

Under the new proposals, the Lord Chancellor would take control of the wide range of tribunals, including employment, tax, social security and immigration.

The tribunal neither appears to be independent, nor is it independent in fact

Sir Andrew Leggatt
Review author
The move could spark controversy as it would mean large parts of the tribunals system that currently come under the control of other cabinet ministers would pass to the unelected Lord Irvine.

Former Court of Appeal judge Sir Andrew Leggatt makes the recommendations in the first big review of the tribunals system for 43 years.

Flaws earmarked

In his report, published on Thursday, Sir Andrew argues a single tribunals system "would be a considerable advance in clarity and simplicity for users and their advisers".

Identifying the flaws in the current system, he says the most important problem is that tribunals are not independent of the government departments that sponsor them.

It's a king Canute attitude, trying to hold back the tide of employment law

Richard Lister
City lawyer
He writes: "The tribunal neither appears to be independent, nor is it independent in fact.

"Responsibility for tribunals and their administration should not lie with those whose policies or decisions it is the tribunals' duty to consider.

"Otherwise for users, as has been said, 'Every appeal is an away game.'"

One example cited of the problem the General Commissioners of Income Tax.

Although now sponsored by the Lord Chancellor's Department, they depend wholly on the Inland Revenue for the information they need to take their decisions.

Case loads

One million cases a year are handled by the 70 different tribunals in England and Wales, which employ around 3,500 people.

In his review, which was commissioned by the Lord Chancellor's Department last year, Sir Andrew says: "Only 20 each hear more than 500 cases a year and many are defunct.

"Their quality varies from excellent to inadequate."

The former judge argues a single system is the only way to achieve independence and coherence while creating "considerable economies of scale" in the medium term.

Sir Andrew says every effort must be made to cut the amount of cases needing solicitors or barristers.

"Tribunals are intended to provide a simple, accessible system of justice where users can represent themselves," he writes.

"So it is discouraging to note the growing perception that they cannot."

The new system would be headed by a senior president - a job for a High Court judge.

'Findings controversial'

The Lord Chancellor's Department, which is now consulting on the proposals, acknowledged "many of the proposals in the Leggatt Report are controversial".

Lord Irvine said the government recognised the vast importance of tribunals, which in the past had not received the attention they deserved.

"We will judge Sir Andrew's recommendations against the criterion of whether they will contribute to improving the service that users receive," he said.

'Missed opportunity'

Employment lawyer Richard Lister, of City law firm Lewis Silkin, argued the report was a "missed opportunity" for employment tribunals, where legal representation was needed.

Mr Lister, who did back the idea of a single system, called for legal aid for at least the more complex cases.

He rubbished the report's suggestion that better trained chairmen and tribunal staff could support applicants.

"It's a King Canute attitude, trying to hold back the tide of employment law," he said.

And the idea of shifting responsiblity for employment tribunals away from the Department of Trade and Industry was criticised by the TUC, which warned it could increase "legalism" in what was supposed to be an informal process.

See also:

20 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Q & A: The Lord Chancellor
20 Jul 01 | UK Politics
Ministers risk new union battle
15 Jan 01 | Scotland
Unfair dismissal claims 'to rise'
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