By Sarah Nason
Bangor University has published a major research report, Understanding Administrative Justice in Wales. The report is the culmination of a research project commissioned from Bangor Law School in December 2014 by the Committee for Administrative Justice and Tribunals Wales (CAJTW), successor to the AJTC Welsh Committee. The research included a stakeholder analysis, literature review and a series of workshops and conferences for the policy, practice and research communities. The research was commissioned in support of the CAJTW’s two key objectives: to create a community of interest in tribunal reform and administrative justice issues in Wales which can be supported over the long term; and to provide advice, guidance and commentary that will continue to promote the development of the administrative justice system in Wales.
The Full Report and Executive Summary can be accessed online at http://adminjustice2015.bangor.ac.uk/research-report.php.en
Some key findings of the report are:
- There is a lack of understanding about the breadth of administrative justice across the UK. It is often seen to include only administrative law and the courts and tribunals interpreting and applying such law. However, administrative justice extends to the roles of public bodies, ombudsmen, commissioners, statutory complaint handlers, politicians and advice service providers (among others).
- In Wales this lack of awareness includes a limited appreciation (among professionals as well as the wider public) of which aspects of the administrative justice system are devolved and which are not. It is necessary to raise awareness of administrative justice in Wales as part of a broader account of social justice defining relationships between citizens and the state. This is particularly important due to specific characteristics of Wales such as its comparatively large public sector, political commitments, demographic make-up and the as yet limited development of its public administrative law advice services sector.
- Twelve Principles of Administrative Justice for Wales are proposed to promote Wales as a progressive nation demonstrating a commitment to high standards of public decision-making, social justice and human rights.
- The administrative justice ‘system’ in Wales has developed in an ad hoc manner in response to the evolving devolution settlement and immediate demands of public administration. Developing administrative justice systems across a range of jurisdictions (both UK, European and international) have to grapple with particular tensions. These include tensions between the demands of legal justice and legal rights on the one hand and administrative expertise on the other, and the need to rationalise routes to redress ensuring accessibility to users, efficiency and cost effectiveness (especially in times of austerity) against the unique and specialised demands of particular fields of public administration. There are also tensions among the roles performed by redress providers, particularly whether so-called ‘fire-fighter’ roles (redressing individual grievances against public bodies) can be appropriately combined alongside ‘fire-watcher’ roles (working systematically to improve public decision-making).
- In designing a future system of administrative justice for Wales consideration needs to be given to standards of first-instance decision-making within public bodies, the business case for making decisions that affect citizens right first time, and developing redress mechanisms that can best provide feedback to improve public body performance. These redress mechanisms also need sufficient teeth to effectively enforce their decisions.
- There is insufficient standardised and publicly available data about aspects of administrative justice in Wales, particularly including complaints and internal reviews within public bodies, and quantitative and qualitative data about ‘Welsh’ claims across a range of devolved and non-devolved tribunals. We know very little about user experiences of the administrative justice system and what barriers people face in accessing it. A future priority is to collect and interpret such data.
- It should be user experiences which inform the development of an improved administrative justice system. It is increasingly difficult to fit redress providers (such as ombudsmen, commissioners and some tribunals) within the traditional legislative, executive and judicial account of the state. Wales can innovate by developing an administrative justice system from the ground-up where citizens needs rather than traditional hierarchical relationships define the roles and responsibilities of particular institutions.
- The Report proposes some specific and some more general considerations to take into account when designing redress mechanisms. It proposes immediate and longer-term potential reforms to particular institutions such as Devolved Welsh Tribunals, enhancing the role of the tribunal judiciary and public law advice providers in Wales, broadening the powers of the PSOW, and examining the role of the Administrative Court in Wales.
About the author: Sarah Nason is Lecturer in Law at Bangor Law School.