On 30 June 2016, The Times reported on a speech given by Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division of the High Court, to a conference organised by Solicitors for the Elderly. It touched on the possibility of holding court hearings in public places other than court buildings. On the same day, The Daily Mail reported that “[m]akeshift courts could be held in buildings such as pubs or town halls.” Now, many a practitioner (not least myself) has calculated the swiftest route from a judicial tongue-lashing to some alcoholic relief from sanction, but can they really be proposing pub hearings (legal history buffs might like to note that a Court of Piepowders, described by Sir William Blackstone as “the lowest, and at the same time the most expeditious, court of justice known to the law of England”, sat at the Stag and Hounds in Bristol until 1870)? Probably not.
In response to its recent consultation on the courts and tribunal estate, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said:
“Initial discussions are taking place with stakeholders to identify alternative ways of delivering services. For example, there are early discussions taking place regionally with local authorities and other local stakeholders to explore the potential of using public spaces. These could include civic buildings, universities and community centres.”
There are two real issues here. One is the rather dry question of reducing what the MoJ spends on court premises. I can see why that is desirable. The other is what Sir James Munby touches on, as reported in The Times:
“We must get away from a judge sitting in a palais de justice, sitting on an enormous throne with one or two people sitting on either side.”
Leaving aside whether or not Edmonton County Court on a Tuesday morning could be described as a palais de anything, does Sir James identify a genuine problem? My view is no.
What I assume he has in mind is the idea that a litigant in person may find a “judge sitting in a palais de justice, sitting on an enormous throne” to be intimidating and remote. For that reason, a litigant without a lawyer may be less capable of taking an active part in proceedings.
I encounter litigants in person frequently, as do my colleagues. Based on such experiences, I take the view that the solemnity (and sobriety) of court proceedings is all the more important when one of the parties is unrepresented. A litigant in person, who may be distressed, confused and suspicious in equal measure, wants to see that the most important person in the room is the man or woman in the judge’s seat, not the seemingly grand lawyers representing the other side. They need to see that the judge is not beguiled by anything, and that he or she is taking seriously the proceedings and the claim (a litigant in person is more often than not the claimant). The environment is a crucial part of that.
In addition, to the extent that the proposal would be to have ad hoc court centres (for example, in community centres) or to have annexes to larger court centres, the logistical difficulties would be problematic. I have had many County Court hearings abandoned because the file is in one annex and the judge in another (in particular, Central London County Court and Mayor’s and City come to mind).
I have a perhaps old-fashioned view that the administration of justice is something special; it is more than people in suits shuffling paper in a community centre. It should continue to be seen to be special and so I for one will not begrudge any District Judge his or her torn, faux-leather throne.