A radical blueprint for the future of justice in Wales will today recommend that Cardiff wrest full control of both policy and funding from Westminster. A new justice department of the Welsh government led by a cabinet minister, a Welsh High Court and Court of Appeal, and a criminal legal aid system run on ’Nordic’ public defender lines are among 78 recommendations for reform.
The 556-page blueprint, Justice in Wales for the People of Wales, was produced by the Commission on Justice in Wales, which was set up by the Welsh Government in 2017 to conduct a full-scale review. Later this morning commission chair Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, former lord chief justice, will present the report to first minister Mark Drakeford at the Senedd in Cardiff Bay.
Lord Thomas will say: ‘Justice should be determined and delivered in Wales so that it aligns with distinct and developing social policy and a growing body of Welsh law. The way that responsibilities are split between Westminster and Cardiff has created pointless complexity, confusion and incoherence in justice and policing in Wales.’
The report reflects frustrations that Wales has been hit hard by deep cuts to justice funding imposed by Westminster over the last decade. ‘Expenditure by the London government on the justice system in Wales has fallen by a third since 2009-10,’ Lord Thomas will add. ‘Although funding by the Welsh Government and local authorities makes up some 38% of total justice expenditure in Wales, the Welsh Government only has a very limited role in formulating policy.’
Cuts to legal aid have contributed to a 35% fall in the number of civil and family legal aid solicitors in Wales, while legal aid advice provided by third-sector organisations has almost completely disappeared. Funding for both legal aid and third sector advice in Wales should be combined in a single fund under the control of an independent board, the commission recommends.
Calling for full legislative devolution of justice, the commission urges the removal of restrictions on the Welsh Assembly’s powers so that they correspond more closely with the position in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Responsibility for executive functions should be transferred from Westminster to the Welsh government. Devolution of justice should be accompanied by a ’full transfer’ of funding.
The law as it applies to Wales should be ‘formally identified’ as the law of Wales and taught to undergraduates, says the commission. However, the report stops short of seeking a separate Welsh legal profession, which would complicate matters for solicitors operating cross-border. ’The present system where legal practitioners can practise in England and Wales and the legal professions are jointly regulated should be continued,’ it adds.
Reform should begin immediately, the commission recommends, through the Welsh government listing the recommendations it will seek to adopt while the current scheme of devolution continues.
Other recommendations include:
- Raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12
- Establishing family drug and alcohol courts in Wales
- Considering the feasibility of a low-cost ombudsman scheme to resolve civil disputes
- Promoting South Wales as a legal centre, and
- Equality of the Welsh language, including in professional exams.