The lord chief justice has indicated he may be in favour of extending court broadcasting further depending on the public response to filming in the Court of Appeal.
In his first media briefing since taking office in October, questioned on the issue of televising the courts, Lord Thomas said: ‘We have just started. We have had two or three days so far. Our view is that we will wait and see how it goes.’
He said he was not sure the courts had so far made ‘exciting television’, as most cases are ‘routine and not terribly interesting’.
But he added: ‘What we want to do is to see how it goes, see how the reporting works, what the public reaction is, and then take a decision on it.
‘I do not think we should anticipate where we are going.’
On the issue of legal aid cuts, Thomas (pictured right) said he was ‘not persuaded’ that they are so far affecting access to justice.
In civil cases, he said the courts have seen ‘many more’ litigants in person. This will force the justice system to adapt to meet their needs, he said, as the rules of procedure were designed for cases where parties were represented by lawyers.
A consultation on the plans to limit the availability of judicial review ended last week. Thomas said he is not in a position to see what the effect of the cuts will be.
But he said judicial review had been a ‘huge success story’ in respect of the way the law has developed.
‘It has made government better; it has enabled people to challenge bad decisions and it would be a great mistake if it was in any way in peril.’
However, he said people do bring ‘wholly unmerited’ proceedings and there are areas of the system where there is abuse, so the government is ‘quite right’ to look at them.
He cited a number of cases he sat on during the summer where judicial review had been used to delay immigration deportations.
Though he stressed most last-ditch immigration appeals are privately funded, so have no impact on the legal aid budget, he believes the situation is getting better and the courts are seeing fewer abuses.
Thomas expressed concern for the future of the judiciary given the legal aid cuts, which may prevent some of the brightest talent, particularly among women and ethnic minority groups, from entering or remaining in the profession.
‘The level of remuneration that has to be paid to those who are doing publicly funded work must be commensurate with an amount that will attract people into it,’ he said.
What that amount is, he said, is a matter for the market and the government to determine.
But he stressed: ‘You cannot allow things to drop to a level that doesn’t attract people of sufficient ability. We [the judges] would all take a very dim view if the legal profession was seen as the preserve of the wealthy.’
On the prospect of barristers returning and refusing work in very high cost cases, Thomas said he hoped that position could be avoided. He left it to barristers’ professional obligations to determine what they would do, but said: ‘If they decide not to accept briefs then a question will arise as to what will happen to them.’
Thomas said: ‘I hope that matters can be resolved, but we do live in a country where you’re entitled not to provide services if the government doesn’t pay you enough, in your view.’
He added: ‘I’m sure a solution will be arrived at. This is a problem we may have to face in the new year.’
On other matters, Thomas said a practice direction, giving ‘clear guidance’ for judges in cases involving defendants wearing a niqab would be published in the ‘very near future’, which would be put out for public consultation.
He said ‘significant investment’ had to be made in court IT systems with a proper structure. Criticising efforts made so far, he said: ‘I don’t think the government has always been very successful at the way it has handled IT contracts.’
In the long term, he said the court estate had to be looked at, to ensure courts are in the right places and are fit for purpose, and suggested there may be innovative ways of providing local justice, using Skype and Apple FaceTime for pre-trial hearings, without having the ‘full-scale apparatus’ of a local court.