We’ve published our response to the consultation in the form of a post below:
JUDICIAL DISCIPLINE: CONSULTATION ON PROPOSALS ABOUT THE JUDICIAL DISCIPLINARY SYSTEM IN ENGLAND AND WALES – RESPONSE OF THE TRANSPARENCY PROJECT TO THE CONSULTATION
THE TRANSPARENCY PROJECT
- The Transparency Project is a registered educational charity operating in England & Wales, whose charitable objects are: (a) To advance the education of the public in the subject of family law and its administration, including the family justice system in England and Wales and the work of the family courts, in particular but not exclusively through the provision of balanced, accurate and accessible information about the work of family courts and the facilitating of public discussions and debates which encompass a range of viewpoints; and (b) To promote the sound administration and development of the law in England and Wales, in particular, family law, by encouraging and contributing to the transparency of processes in the family justice system, contributing to public legal education concerning family law and matters of family justice, enhancing access to justice in matters of family law and by such other means as the trustees may determine.
2. In short, our objectives are to make family justice clearer.
3. The Project has three trustees: Lucy Reed (barrister – also for the sake of transparency, a part time judge), Dr Julie Doughty (lecturer Cardiff University), and Paul Magrath (ICLR). Together the trustees authored the first family court practitioner textbook relating to transparency issues (Transparency in the Family Courts: Publicity and Privacy in Practice, Bloomsbury, 2018). In addition, the Project has a core group of volunteers, including family, Court of Protection and media lawyers and academics, and journalists (Jack Harrison, Malvika Jaganmohan, Polly Morgan, Dr Emma Nottingham, Barbara Rich, Louise Tickle, Dr Judith Townend, Alice Twaite). The Project is also supported by a ‘pool’ of occasional writers (mainly practising lawyers) and guest writers from a range of disciplines and viewpoints.
OUR RESPONSE TO THE CONSULTATION – OVERVIEW
4. This response has been led by a core group member, Jack Harrison, although the response is on behalf of the charity and is approved by all trustees. Our response is limited to the matters relating to transparency (questions 35-38 in the consultation document).
5. We welcome the step forward towards greater transparency within the judicial disciplinary process.
6. We consider that public confidence is best maintained by as much detail as possible being available about disciplinary proceedings for office-holders, and for any sanctions to be properly reasoned within statements. We consider that the proposed ability of office-holders to comment on disciplinary statements should be tightly controlled to ensure the integrity of the process.
7. We are disappointed that public hearings have been discounted by the working group, and hope that further consideration will be given to this in the future, even if it is not possible for all hearings to be in public.
8. We agree that the JCIO website should contain more information, for longer, and that the annual report should be more expansive to maintain confidence in the JCIO, which performs an important public function.
SPECIFIC RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS
Q. 35 – Do you agree that disciplinary statements should contain more detail and that office-holders should be able to comment on the intended wording of the statements? Please give your reasons
9. We note the arguments laid out at paragraph 186 of the consultation against holding judicial disciplinary panel hearings in public. We are disappointed that no consideration is outlined as to potential safeguards against the harms identified, such as empowering panels to control public access and reporting in much the same way as judges in the family court. The position of the office-holder is one of many competing considerations within the process, which ultimately serves a public good. We hope that this will be subject to further consultation and discussion in future.
10. We consider that disciplinary statements are, at present, insufficient. We agree that it is in the public interest to produce more detailed disciplinary statements including information about the circumstances of the misconduct, the details of the misconduct, the office-holder’s response and any aggravating or mitigating factors (subject to any countervailing privacy need arising from the privacy rights of the parties to the proceedings that any misconduct relates to). We further consider that:
a. The panel members should be identified;
b. The principles and reasons underpinning a sanction (if imposed) should be explained.
11. This is particularly important where the system is discretionary and there is scope for inconsistency within the exercise of this discretion. It is hoped that, in turn, greater information as to the reasons underpinning decisions will enable more accurate reporting.
12. The consultation outlines proposals for office-holders to be given the opportunity to comment on intended wording of statements, although this does not extend to a right to ‘approve’ wording, which is left to the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice. Whilst we agree with this suggestion, we consider it imperative that any such process does not undermine the perception of objectivity and independence of the disciplinary process. We therefore consider that the process of seeking comments should be subject to a tightly controlled process, with clear boundaries as to types of comments that office-holders may make on any draft statement. We consider that any such process should not give rise to any expectation of editorial control on behalf of the office-holder, but rather exist as a safeguard against harmful or highly sensitive, personal detail being included in disciplinary statements. It is of paramount importance that the impartial nature of the process is maintained. We further consider that, once formulated, the ‘comment seeking process’ policy should be published in full on the JCIO website.
Q. 36 – Do you agree with our proposed publication periods for disciplinary statements? Please give your reasons.
13. The working group proposes that statements should be available on the JCIO website for the following periods: a. Notice of misconduct with advice – two years
b. Notice of misconduct with formal warning – four years
c. Notice of misconduct with reprimand – six years
d. Notice of misconduct with suspension – either years
e. Removal from office – indefinite.
14. We agree that disciplinary statements should be publicly available for longer periods than at present. We agree with the working group’s reasoning in this respect. We note that this is concordant with the approach of other professional regulators, who ‘step’ the length of time decisions are available proportionate to the seriousness of the regulatory offence. For example, the Bar Standards Board or the MPTS for doctors.
15. We would welcome a filter feature on the JCIO website to show/hide removals from office where magistrates do not comply with sitting requitements. Whilst these statements are important, they often dilute the more serious statements. We question whether they need to be issued per office-holder, or could be published en masse. Equally, we would welcome a filtering feature to allow decisions in respect of magistrates, or the fee paid judiciary, or the salaried judiciary, to be easily identified.
Q.37 – Do you agree that deleted disciplinary statements should be available from the JCIO on request? Please give your reasons.
16. We agree that the JCIO should, on demand, supply deleted statements to those who wish to access them. We agree that although it is likely that demand would be low, it is in the public interest for the disciplinary history of public office-holders to be made public and to be available indefinitely.
17. We question whether, given the overlap of reasoning between indefinite availability and publication of statements, statements should be available indefinitely on the JCIO website. The Bar Standards Board has a ‘past disciplinary findings’ function on the Barristers’ Register where all findings since 2002 can be searched for. We wonder whether it may be sensible for the JCIO to maintain a similar, publicly available list of office-holders who have been disciplined in the past through its website. Disciplinary statements may then be sought directly from the JCIO. This will also reduce the likelihood of members of the public using the JCIO request process to ‘fish’ for information about office-holders.
Q.38 – Do you agree with our proposals for enhancing the JCIO’s annual report? Please give your reasons.
18. The JCIO fulfils an important public good. If the JCIO does not run effectively, or is not perceived to do so, or if it is not perceived to operate transparently, confidence in the JCIO may be affected, with a knock on effect on the rule of law. It is therefore important that the function of the JCIO and its performance is recorded annually in as much detail as possible.
19. We agree that more data should be made available as per the recommendation, including information about the reasons for sanctions as they have been imposed upon office-holders.
20. We consider that both the JCIO website and report should be written at an accessible and appropriate reading age, so as not to undermine the transparency that publication seeks to promote.
The Transparency Project Team
7 February 2022
We have a small favour to ask!
The Transparency Project is a registered charity in England & Wales run largely by volunteers who also have full-time jobs. We’re working hard to secure extra funding so that we can keep making family justice clearer for all who use the court and work within it.
We’d be really grateful if you were able to help us by making a small one-off (or regular!) donation through our Just Giving page.
Thanks for reading!
Feature Pic – RCJ Thanks To Simon Ross @shrossy