Justice in Wales: Oversight and accountability

Published 11/11/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

It’s two years since the Commission on Justice in Wales recommended that the Welsh Government needed to establish ‘clear and accountable leadership’ on justice. This article looks at the roles of the Senedd and Welsh Government in oversight of the justice system.

A division between devolved and reserved responsibilities

In England and Wales, the UK Government is responsible for most of the institutions that make up the justice system, such as the courts, police and prisons.

However, the Senedd and Welsh Government already have significant responsibilities for justice in Wales too, including:

  • overseeing the development of administrative law and devolved institutions for resolving disputes, such as the Welsh Tribunals;
  • helping to prevent crime and manage and rehabilitate offenders;
  • developing aspects of public family law and policy; and
  • supporting advice and advocacy services and the legal sector to promote access to justice.

This division between devolved and reserved responsibilities is sometimes called a ‘jagged edge’. Wales Governance Centre research found that in 2017-18 38% of spending on justice in Wales was derived from devolved or local government funding.

The need for better joint working

In recent years, concerns have been raised that devolved and reserved bodies aren’t working effectively together to deliver justice in Wales.

The Welsh Government commissioned Lord Thomas to review the operation of the justice system in Wales in 2017. The Commission on Justice in Wales reported in October 2019.

The Thomas Commission found that ‘[u]nder the current scheme of devolution there is no properly joined up or integrated approach’ to justice. It said the people of Wales were ‘being let down’.

The Commission recommended that there should be full legislative devolution of justice to Wales. However, it also made a wide range of recommendations to be taken forward under the current devolution settlement.

It said that the Welsh Government needed to establish ‘clear and accountable leadership’ on justice by giving a single Minister or Deputy Minister oversight of all justice matters. It also said that the Senedd needed to take a more proactive approach to scrutinising what the Welsh Government was doing.

The Commission also found that arrangements for oversight and coordination of justice were ‘overly complex’. To improve accountability, it recommended that bodies for oversight and criminal justice and family justice systems should be reformed and that new bodies should be set up to oversee civil and administrative justice and funding for legal aid and advice.

Welsh Government’s response

In response to the Thomas Commission, the then Welsh Government decided to set up a Cabinet sub-committee on justice, chaired by the First Minister. The Welsh Government shared its justice transformation work programme with the Fifth Senedd in October 2020. This sets out Welsh Government plans across five areas.

In the new Welsh Government, the Counsel General has taken over responsibility for justice policy and the response to the Thomas Commission from the First Minister. He will chair the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Justice and is also responsible for liaison with the legal sector and tribunals policy.

The Counsel General is not the only minister with responsibility for justice. For example, the Minister for Social Justice is responsible for relations with the Police and Crime Commissioners, police and other criminal justice agencies; relations with UK Government in respect of the Prisons and the Probation Service; and advice and advocacy services.

The Counsel General gave a public lecture entitled ‘Getting Justice for Wales’ to Aberystwyth University on 8 July. He said that the Welsh Government would release a report and strategic programme on justice in the autumn. In September, the Counsel General issued a written statement outlining his priorities The planned strategic programme has not yet been published.

Senedd scrutiny

During the Fifth Senedd, committees carried out inquiries on aspects of justice policy in Wales. For example, the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee looked at the provision of health and social care in the adult prison estate and mental health in policing and police custody.

In early 2020, the Fifth Senedd passed a Welsh Government motion to support taking forward the recommendations of the Thomas Commission. It also added justice to the remit of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution (LJC) Committee.

The LJC Committee held a short inquiry on Making Justice Work in Wales. Although the pandemic limited its approach, the Committee commissioned research mapping the institutions that make up the justice system in Wales and took evidence from the First Minister and Counsel General, the Lord Chancellor, the President of Welsh Tribunals and a range of stakeholders.

In its legacy report, the Committee said that the Welsh Government should report annually to the Senedd on its work on justice and that annual evidence sessions with the Lord Chancellor and the President of Welsh Tribunals should be established.

The new Senedd has re-established the LJC Committee. In July, the Senedd’s Business Committee considered the remit of the new committee and agreed that:

… high-level justice policy matters, such as the devolution of justice and policing, and any matters which relate to law-making, should be assigned to the LJC Committee. Other matters which relate to the practical application of justice policy should be open to scrutiny by appropriate policy and legislation committees.

The LJC Committee asked the Counsel General about justice in Wales in its first evidence session in September and took evidence from the President of Welsh Tribunals in November. LJC will track developments on justice policy within its remit through regular monitoring reports, while other committees will also be able to scrutinise justice as part of their policy scrutiny.

Article by Lucy Valsamidis, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament