Yesterday the Civil Justice Council has published its final report on ‘vulnerable witnesses and parties within civil proceedings’. John Cuss, a solicitor in our serious injury team and Vice-Chair of the Law Society’s Civil Litigation Section Committee provided a response to the consultation on behalf of Minster Law.
In the foreword to the report, The Master of the Rolls, as Chairman of the Civil Justice Council (CJC), Sir Terence Etherton, said: “For the justice system to work, appropriate assistance must be provided to those that need it, to ensure they can take part in proceedings to the best of their ability.”
The report makes 18 recommendations to enhance the experience of vulnerable witnesses and others. These recommendations include:
- Rule changes to further ensure that all civil judges, parties and advocates consider vulnerability of people involved in civil proceedings.
- The Judicial College should enhance the training of civil judges to detect and assist vulnerable witnesses and consider making this training mandatory. HMCTS should do the same for all staff who handle civil cases. Professional bodies are also asked to think about how their members can be trained to work with vulnerable parties and witnesses.
- HMCTS should look at the availability, use and funding of intermediaries in civil cases.
- Court facilities should be equipped to accommodate assistance or protections that vulnerable witnesses require.
- The Ministry of Justice should increase its financial support to Litigants in Person (including to Support Through Court and other key charities).
Minster Law believe that protecting vulnerable parties and witnesses in legal proceedings is central to both the rule of law and access to justice. As the report acknowledges, whilst there is no specific data as to the number of vulnerable parties or witnesses who appear before the civil courts, 25% of Claimants who answered the civil court user survey indicated that they had a physical or mental condition.
There are currently no specific provisions in the Civil Procedure Rules dealing with vulnerable parties or witnesses and the recommendation is that this gap is to be addressed to ensure that all parties can fully participate in the proceeding.
As is detailed on page 138 of the report, we advised in our response to the consultation, that whilst there are good powers in place for the court to limit evidence (32.1 CPR) these are of no meaningful benefit if the court is not aware of particular vulnerability issues. Therefore the recommendation is that directions questionnaires be amended to request information regarding vulnerability or potential vulnerability.
As HMCTS continue with their transformation programme, we would also emphasise the reports recommendation that those engaged in the design and implementation have considerations to the vulnerability of witnesses and parties when looking at changes to the current processes.
It is right that this vitally important area of civil justice is getting the attention it deserves and Minster Law welcomes the reports recommendations. As we will likely see a continued stark increase in the number of Litigants in Person over the coming years and move to more digital and online judicial procedures, these recommendations carry even more significance.
You can find the full report here – https://www.judiciary.uk/announcements/civil-justice-council-proposes-better-assistance-for-vulnerable-witnesses/