Sir Wyn Williams signed off his six-year tenure as President of the Welsh Tribunals with his annual report for 2021-22.
The report provides an update on developments in the Welsh Tribunals over the last 18 months and looks at proposals for reforming the Tribunals in the future.
Ahead of the report being considered by the Senedd, the President gave evidence to the Legislation, Justice and Constitution (LJC) Committee. This article looks at some of the key issues highlighted in the report.
What are the Welsh Tribunals and who is the President?
The Welsh Tribunals are the only judicial bodies administered by the Welsh Government. A Tribunal is a body that settles disputes, often following the decision of a public body. There are currently six Welsh Tribunals that cover areas such as mental health, education and agriculture.
The Wales Act 2017 created the role of the President of Welsh Tribunals. Sir Wyn Williams was appointed in 2017. The President has a supervisory role over all the Welsh Tribunals. Each tribunal also has its own judicial lead and members. The tribunals have a range of different responsibilities. Together, they deal with about 2,000 cases every year.
More information about the Welsh Tribunals can be found in this Senedd Research article.
Applications to the Tribunals
The President’s annual report shows fluctuations in the number of applications received by each of the Welsh Tribunals. Some have seen significant increases in the applications they have received, whilst others have seen substantial decreases. The Adjudication Panel for Wales, which determines alleged breaches of public authorities’ codes of conduct, saw applications rise from 4 to 10 between 2020-21 and 2021-22. Over the same period, applications to the Welsh Language Tribunal were down to 3 compared to 13 in the previous year.
In his evidence to the LJC Committee, the President noted the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the number of applications. He argued that whilst the Tribunals were able to quickly adapt to holding remote hearings, he thought there was a general reluctance to get involved in litigation during this time unless it was “absolutely necessary”.
Appointments to Welsh Tribunals
The President has highlighted ongoing challenges with recruiting new members to Tribunals due to the “fierce competition” that exists for judicial appointments across the UK. The President has previously noted the importance of ‘cross-ticketing’ that allows members of one Tribunal to serve on others, but only three such appointments were made in 2021-22, compared to eight in 2019-20.
In his evidence to the LJC Committee, Sir Wyn said that some practitioners might consider the Welsh Tribunals to be “less attractive” than Tribunals that cover England and Wales. He argued this was because the roles are nearly all fee-paid (rather than salaried) and that there is no Welsh Tribunals Centre where judges and staff can group together to develop a more collegiate environment. He suggested that establishing a Welsh Civil Justice Centre to bring together non-devolved justice bodies and the Welsh Tribunals could help resolve these issues.
New ways of working and budgets
The way that Tribunal hearings are conducted has changed in recent years. The Covid-19 pandemic meant that many hearings had to be held remotely and this practice has continued ever since. The President has said previously that this can cause difficulties for some Tribunals but it has resulted in costs being reduced and is the primary reason for an underspend in the 2021-22 budget. One of the tasks Sir Wyn has identified for his successor is to strike “an appropriate balance between remote and face-to-face hearings”. The Counsel General has committed to keep the LJC Committee updated on any increase in demand for face-to-face hearings that could impact on the budget allocation.
Use of the Welsh Language
The use of the Welsh language in proceedings has decreased significantly during this reporting period. The number of hearings held in Welsh was already low (25 in 2019-20 and 20 in 2020-21 – accounting for around 1% of all hearings) but it has dropped to six in 2021-22 and five between April-December 2022 (0.3% of all hearings). Some of this decrease can be explained by the drop in the number of applications to the Welsh Language Tribunal but even earlier levels are much lower than the population level of Welsh speakers.
Sir Wyn noted in his evidence to the LJC Committee that the use of the Welsh language in other Welsh Tribunals is low, despite there being judges and lay members of those Tribunals who are capable of conducting cases in Welsh. He said that whilst the facility is there for people to use the Welsh language, “on the whole they don’t tend to do so in this formal setting”. Sir Wyn suggested that the President could seek membership of the Lord Chancellor’s standing committee on the Welsh language, which may provide opportunities to promote the use of the language.
Reform of the Welsh Tribunals
In his annual report, the President gives his support for many of the recommendations made by the Law Commission in its report on Devolved Tribunals in Wales, including:
- replacing the six Welsh Tribunals with a single First-tier Tribunal, which is sub-divided into chambers representing those six areas;
- bringing the Valuation Tribunal for Wales within the scope of Welsh Tribunals;
- establishing an Appeal Tribunal for Wales, which could hear appeals from all six areas of the new First-tier Tribunal; and
- making the Welsh Tribunals Unit a non-ministerial department of the Welsh Government.
In his evidence to the LJC Committee, Sir Wyn talked particularly about the benefits of having an Appeal Tribunal for Wales. He argued that it would give citizens a single route to appeal, rather than the disparate situation that exists today, and would likely allow appeals to be heard more quickly.
The Welsh Government has committed to implementing many of the Law Commission’s recommendations in a piece of legislation to reform the Welsh Tribunals. The President is clear about the need for this legislation to implement the proposals to ensure that the Welsh Tribunals “flourish as devolved institutions” and to cure “the many anomalies and inconsistencies” that exist in the current system. The legislation is anticipated to be introduced by the Welsh Government before the end of the Sixth Senedd in 2026.
A new President takes up post
Sir Wyn offers some reflections in his annual report. He says the next four years will be “challenging” for his successor, according to Sir Wyn, with upcoming reforms to the Welsh Tribunals and new legislation expected in the UK Parliament on mental health.
Sir Gary Hickinbottom will take over as President of the Welsh Tribunals on 1 April 2023.
The Senedd will be considering the President’s annual report during Plenary on Tuesday 21 March.
You can watch the debate live on Senedd.tv
Article by Josh Hayman, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament