Ministers 'failing to restore faith in law': Law chief proposes key changes

THE Government has been accused by a leading barrister of squandering the opportunity to restore confidence in the criminal justice system.

Speaking at the Bar Council's centenary conference in London at the weekend, its chairman, Robert Seabrook QC, said the Government had disregarded the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, published in July last year, when what was needed was an affirmation of principle.

'The genesis of the commission was a profound loss of public confidence in the criminal justice system in the wake of a succession of miscarriages of justice,' Mr Seabrook said.

The commission had recommended the setting up of a criminal cases review authority and a single broad ground of appeal. Both measures met with widespread public approval, Mr Seabrook said, but they were not included in the current Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.

In spite of assurances to the contrary from the Home Secretary, Mr Seabrook said it was now widely believed that the Bill's inclusion in the next session of parliament was not a government priority.

In his speech to the conference, the Master of the Rolls, Sir Thomas Bingham, said that the independent Bar would survive into the next century, but it could not rely on restrictive rules to protect it from the public demand for high quality services.

One suggestion made by Sir Thomas which may not find universal support among barristers was that solicitors, newly qualified to appear as advocates in the higher courts, should be allowed to belong to the Inns of Court.

The Master of the Rolls highlighted three areas in which, he said, the British legal system lagged behind that of the United States, beginning with the field of case management in civil law.

In the United States and Australia, he said, a civil case was assigned at an early stage to a particular judge, who was responsible for seeing it through to its conclusion. No such practice existed in this country, except for a relatively few complex cases.

'Case management is not a panacea for all ills,' Sir Thomas said, 'but I think it could help to alleviate the serious ills of expense and delay which currently dog all common law systems.'

The second defect was the custom of allotting time for oral argument in civil appeals according to estimates made by counsel.

Because of a steadily increasing number of appeals, counsel should confine oral argument to a 'tight but reasonable' timetable, which would oblige them to 'winnow out the essential and crucial from the inessential and peripheral'.

Sir Thomas also pointed to a failure to exploit the potential of alternative forms of dispute resolution such as conciliation and mediation. Lawyers, he said, would have to recognise the conciliation of cases out of court and not only the winning of cases in court as part of their professional vocation.

The bulk of these reforms could be introduced without the need for legislation, he said, with the exception of case management. This could require more judges, but additional costs would be balanced by a saving made by the swifter disposal of cases.