Devolution of the justice system in Wales took another major step today, with the Welsh government declaring that a separate jurisdiction is now ‘inevitable’. Ministers unveiled plans to consider a Welsh Human Rights Bill, renew efforts to boost the legal sector in Wales and create a unified, single system of tribunals.

A  publication entitled ‘Delivering Justice for Wales’ states that the only way to address pressures on the justice system is for the country to take greater control from Westminster. A study will also be commissioned on public funding of solicitor apprenticeships. 

Authors counsel general Mick Antoniw and minister for social justice Jane Hutt, say that Wales’ best interests are no longer served by being attached to England. The Gazette understands that major differences have arisen between London and Cardiff about legal aid funding, prison policy and human rights protections. The Welsh government has also been disappointed with lack of progress on drug and alcohol courts and has begun its own pilot in Cardiff.

Antoniw said: ‘Our publication sets out the innovative ways in which we are using the powers we have, including early intervention to steer people away from the criminal justice system, and how we would seek to build on that through a fully devolved justice system. But the policies of successive UK governments since 2010 have firmly pulled the shutters down on access to justice, threatened fundamental rights and protections, and removed vital funding.’

There is particular discontent about the lack of investment in Cardiff’s Civil and Family Justice Centre. Antoniw said the building is not fit for purpose but that discussions with the Ministry of Justice about an upgrade have ‘fallen on deaf ears’.

‘[If justice was devolved] there is no way we would ever get away with having a court in that state – it feels like the capital of Wales is just a poor partner of all the civil justice centres of the big cities of the UK,' he said. 'That’s something that needs to change.’

In 2019, the Law Commission recommended a new tribunal system for Wales, noting that property, education and mental health were now devolved matters and required a separate jurisdiction. This was shortly after the Commission on Justice in Wales had recommended that Cardiff wrest full control of both policy and funding from Westminster.

Antoniw acknowledged a challenge remains to win ‘hearts and minds’ of legal businesses and educational establishments in Wales about a separate jurisdiction. But he added: ‘There are regional differences all over the UK in terms of how justice is delivered. What this [publication] is saying is that operating in a more strategic way is good for justice. We see the development of the justice system as creating no barriers and you should be able to practise in both [England and Wales]. We want to see the legal economy grow and to develop skills.’