A new unified tribunal system should be introduced in Wales to replace the current fragmented tribunals, the Law Commission has announced today [9 December 2021].
A tribunal is a body set up to settle disputes, usually arising out of public bodies’ decisions. They provide justice to some of the most vulnerable people in society. But the rules and procedures for the devolved Welsh tribunals are complicated and inconsistent, and in some instances, unfit for purpose.
To improve how they are administered, the Law Commission is recommending a new tribunal, the First-tier Tribunal for Wales, which would replace the existing Welsh tribunals. It would be divided into chambers, such as a property chamber and an education chamber.
As part of the new system, the Commission is also recommending:
- The creation of an Appeal Tribunal for Wales, to hear appeals from the First-tier Tribunal for Wales.
- The creation of a Tribunals Procedure Committee with responsibility for reviewing and updating procedures.
- The creation of a non-ministerial department to replace the existing Welsh Tribunals Unit which will be independent from the Welsh Government and responsible for managing the tribunals system.
Nicholas Paines QC, Commissioner for Public and Welsh Law said:
“The tribunal system in Wales is complex and outdated and isn’t effectively meeting the needs of the Welsh public. It’s clear that an overhaul is needed.
“Our recommendations would create a single unified tribunals system that is fit for the 21st Century and able to adapt to future changes.”
Issues with devolved tribunals in Wales
The tribunal system in England and Wales evolved haphazardly, with tribunals being created whenever an individual government department thought it was necessary. Each individual tribunal was set up to tackle a specific problem, resulting in an unplanned and inflexible system. Tribunals were developed at different times and for different purposes, leading to gaps and inconsistencies in the legislation. Processes and procedures (such as the rules around appointment of judges, or making procedural rules) varied from one tribunal to another.
In 2007 an Act of the UK Parliament rationalised many of the tribunals that operate across the United Kingdom or parts of it into a single structure. But tribunals that were devolved in Wales were left out, leaving the old fragmented system in place. The creation of the office of President of Welsh Tribunals has done much to unify the tribunals in Wales; but there is a limit to what can be done without reform of the underlying legal structures.
The lack of coherence has prevented the tribunal system developing in response to the changing needs of its users. The Justice in Wales Commission identified this as a problem in 2019, recommending that more use should be made of devolved tribunals in future Welsh legislation.
Law Commission recommendations
In response to these issues, the Law Commission has made a series of recommendations. These include:
- Replacing the existing Welsh tribunals with a unified First-tier Tribunal for Wales, to be divided into chambers. This system would be more flexible and able to respond and adapt to future change.
- The system would include the currently independent Valuation Tribunal for Wales, and school exclusion appeal panels.
- The First-tier Tribunal for Wales would be made up of – among others – property, education, mental health and Welsh language chambers.
- The creation of an Appeal Tribunal for Wales, to hear appeals from the First-tier Tribunal.
- There would also be a new appeal route from school admission appeal panels to the education chamber.
- Creating a new tribunals procedure committee, responsible for reviewing and updating the procedural rules on a regular basis to ensure they are responsive to changing circumstances and don’t go out of date again.
- Making sure the new system operates independently from the Welsh Government. This includes:
- The creation of a new Tribunals Administration Service for Wales, to replace the existing Welsh Tribunals Unit. This should be a non-ministerial department with an increased role for judges.
- A new statutory duty for Welsh Ministers and all those responsible for tribunals administration to uphold the independence of the tribunals.
The report has been presented to the Senedd. It is now for the Welsh Government to decide whether and how to enact the changes.