Mark Drakeford outlined the Welsh Government’s response to the Commission on Justice in Wales’ report, which called for Wales to have full control of its justice system. The First Minister told AMs that publication of the independent recommendations was a watershed moment for the country. He thanked Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd and all the members of the commission for the “most comprehensive exercise ever undertaken in examining Wales’ justice system”. Prof Drakeford said the report provides a treasure trove of testimony and advice as well as 78 recommendations. He identified claims that the people of Wales are being let down by the justice system as the most striking conclusion of the report. Prof Drakeford told the Siambr that a fair, accessible and effective justice system is a cornerstone of freedom and democracy.
Prof Drakeford highlighted the report’s warning that proper access to justice is unavailable in many areas, with people facing long and difficult journeys to their nearest court. He also drew attention to the report’s warning of a serious risk to sustainability of legal practice, especially in traditional high streets. He told AMs that the cumulative nature of the report’s conclusions makes them so compelling. However, he accepted that challenges will not be overcome without a change in the roles of Westminster and devolved institutions. Prof Drakeford said there needs to be clear and democratic accountability for the way the system operates. He explained that the report’s central finding is consistent with the long-standing position of the Government.
Prof Drakeford highlighted a general election was called within less than a week of the report’s publication, creating an“unavoidable” hiatus in the Welsh Government’s ability to open a dialogue with Westminster. He stressed that his government would seek to progress recommendations within its competencies, raising the example of the report’s challenge to Wales’ law schools. Prof Drakeford highlighted that 38% of all justice expenditure in Wales already comes from the Welsh Government and local authorities “despite our limited role in formulating policy and ensuring that those funds are spent beneficially”. He said his government will work with the profession to explore how best to provide fully funded legal apprenticeships as a new pathway. Prof Drakeford added that the government will take the initiative to support the establishment of a Law Council to promote legal education and awareness of Welsh Law. On the commission’s call for investment in technology, Prof Drakeford said £4m has been allocated to an innovation lab at Swansea University. Turning to the recommendation for stronger leadership on justice matters in the Welsh Government, he said he has decided to establish a cabinet justice sub-committee that he will chair. He explained that the committee will be responsible for taking forward the recommendations and overseeing talks with the UK Government. He said the government will bring forward a debate on the report in the new year.
Paul Davies said the Welsh Conservatives remain unconvinced about the full-scale devolution of the justice system despite the merit of the findings of the report. He asked about the Welsh Government’s work to better promote awareness and develop skills within the industry. The Welsh Conservative group leader called for a strategy to develop Wales’ legal studies programmes. Raising concerns about family justice struggling between the responsibilities of both governments, Mr Davies called for more preventative action. Mr Davies quoted the Law Society’s evidence to the consultation, which said: “We have a world-renowned legal system with judges of the highest calibre. These benefits have developed over hundreds of years and will continue regardless of our departure from the European Union.” He raised concerns that the benefits could be lost in a separate jurisdiction, and he warned that it could creative difficulty on the Wales-England border. Mr Davies also highlighted the Law Society’s comments on rural practice and the need to address infrastructure issues.
Prof Drakeford questioned what could ever convince the Welsh Conservatives of the case for devolution if the report does not because it is such a compelling case. He said the report is clear that the profession and the higher education institutions cannot continually look to the Welsh Government to take the lead. Prof Drakeford agreed about the compelling evidence for family justice reforms. On the issue of separate legal jurisdiction, he said the report recommends a separation of the judiciary and sets out why it would not run into some of the difficulties that Mr Davies referenced. Referencing concerns about border issues, he accused the Welsh Conservative of raising “old canards that we have heard time and time again”.
Rhun ap Iorwerth welcomed the statement but cautioned that it is the beginning of the journey. He told AMs that work will be required in Westminster as well as Wales to take the recommendations forward. The Plaid Cymru deputy leader said the National Assembly should embrace the report. Raising the Secret Barrister book on the court system, he said the recommendations present an opportunity to address the deficiencies of the legal system. Mr Iorwerth raised the role of the civil service which warned that they would need 200 officials at a cost of £40m to implement changes. He highlighted that the commission said 10 officials would be required. He also pointed out that Labour MPs have blocked the devolution of elements of the justice system.
Prof Drakeford said the civil service figure was based on the 300 officials in the Scottish executive, adding that he could not see how 10 additional people could cope with the workload. He told AMs that the report will provide an independent evidence base that he can use to persuade people of the merits.
Mark Reckless raised the practical challenges that flow from the division of responsibilities between Wales and Westminster. The Brexit Party group leader argued that the report “takes it for a given that the solution must always be devolving to Wales”, saying it will put at risk the substantial flow of resources from England. He raised concerns about the “horrendous” implications of the reduction in spending on the justice system. Mr Reckless questioned the report’s approach and evidence base on appointments to the Supreme Court. He claimed that the Commission on Justice has “misdescribed” how justices are appointed.
Prof Drakeford agreed that the report is of significance beyond Wales, highlighting cuts to legal aid, the court service and the way the probation service was privatised on both sides of the border. He explained that his understanding is that the report says a Welsh judge should be formally appointed to the Supreme Court. He told Mr Reckless that the government will explore the points he made.
Mick Antoniw said the former Lord Chief Justice’s report is almost in the form of an incisive judgement into the state of law within Wales. The chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee highlighted that the Ministry of Justice rejected the 550-page report’s findings within 15 minutes. Mr Antoniw warned that the importance of access to justice has been lost. He said the report offers an opportunity to put such principles at the core of the legislature and justice system, calling for the creation of a Welsh legal aid system.
Prof Drakeford agreed that access to justice should be fundamental, criticising cuts to legal aid and the false economy of people being forced to represent themselves in court. The First Minister pointed out that the Welsh Government has had to divert money to non-devolved areas.
Alun Davies said the justice system is dramatically failing people in Wales and “works for virtually nobody”. He called for the creation of a justice department within the Welsh Government to better co-ordinate and manage the system. Prof Drakeford reassured Mr Davies that he will focus on the human consequences of the failures that the report outlines. He said funding will have to follow if the report is ever to be realised.
John Griffiths argued that far too many people are sent to prison compared with other countries in Europe and he said the report offers an opportunity to make progress. Prof Drakeford agreed, highlighting a study by the Wales Governance Centre and calling for a more joined-up, purposeful system.
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