Words by Nick Thomas-Symonds MP
Nick Thomas-Symonds was elected as the Labour MP for Torfaen in May 2015 and was re-elected in the June 2017 General Election. He is currently undertaking the Industry and Parliament Trust’s educational Fellowship Programme and, as part of this, has recently spent four days on the IPT’s Courts and Tribunals Scheme. Below, Nick has reflected on his time spent with the Royal Courts of Justice and the value of the scheme in his role as Shadow Solicitor General.
During my time working as a university lecturer in politics, I taught the importance of the principle of Separation of Powers: executive, legislative, and judicial being distinct. My students would often point out that, unlike in the United States, the Executive in the UK is drawn from the Legislature. Until the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, and the creation of the Supreme Court, the Lord Chancellor managed to straddle all three branches. Yet, despite the UK constitution’s unique form, Members of Parliament have, on the whole, been scrupulous in avoiding comments in Parliament that would prejudice ongoing judicial proceedings. In casework, parliamentarians have, quite rightly, steered away from purely legal matters that are before the courts.
But all this is not to say that law-makers should not have an understanding of how the law is applied and a real appreciation of the impact of justice policy on the front-line. This is what the Industry and Parliament Trust’s Courts and Tribunals Scheme seeks to provide, with a series of visits to courts and tribunals that I have undertaken in recent months.
During my time on the IPT Courts and Tribunal Scheme, I spent time at the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ), home to a number of specialist courts, located in central London on the Strand. All MPs will know from their constituency work, that planning issues are often thorny. There is a strong demand for a greater supply of housing, but where homes are built is often highly controversial. The Planning Court, which came into being in April 2014, is designed to speed up the resolution of planning disputes, and has its own specific set of procedural rules. Whilst at the RCJ, I gained insight into the importance and improved speed of judicial reviews, statutory reviews and statutory appeals that come before the court. The court’s specialism illustrates the complexity of the decisions for judges.
My day watching an extradition case emphasised the central importance of human rights in our justice system, and the challenges judges face in having to assess the whether other countries can uphold those rights. In the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal I saw the multitude of factors at play as judges considered whether to uphold a sentence given in a local court. This is greatly beneficial to my role as Shadow Solicitor General, which involves working with the Shadow Attorney General and holding the Attorney General and Solicitor General to account in the House of Commons.
A visit to the Employment Tribunal in Cardiff showed the impact of the 2013 introduction of hearing fees of up to £1,200, which were only abolished by the Supreme Court earlier this year in a case brought by the union, UNISON. As parliamentarians, we can debate the impact of increasing numbers of Litigants in person at hearings, but there is no substitute for actually watching cases with lawyers and non-lawyers to see the differences in how those cases are conducted and the time they take. And that, in essence, captures the power of the Industry and Parliament Trust programme: the experience makes for contributions in the House of Commons that benefit from direct knowledge. I would therefore strongly encourage members from all parties to participate in the work of the IPT.