We in Wales know what it’s like to be, at best, an afterthought in Westminster.

Our justice system is no different. In October 2019, Lord Thomas, the former Lord Chief Justice, produced a detailed and evidence-based report which strongly recommended the devolution of justice.

The Tory Westminster Government had little interest in having a productive and grown-up conversation, denying it out-right under the lazy guise of England-and-Walesism, a stagnant relic from the 16th century.

On the other side of this two-party coin, Kier Starmer has said he’s “not precious” about the prospect of devolving more power to the Senedd. Wales seems stuck as a perpetual afterthought to whoever holds the keys to Number 10.

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Many opponents of a separate Welsh legal system ignore or are ignorant to the fact that we have in Wales a small but growing distinct legal system: the Welsh Tribunals. Instead of just shaking our heads and wagging our fingers, there are things we can do now within the current devolved settlement to create a better justice system in Wales. We don’t need to wait for Boris Johnson or the disinterested Kier Starmer to graciously give us these powers.

Most of the Welsh Tribunals have existed since administrative devolution in Wales, and with the advent of democratic devolution in 1999, they were transferred from the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Wales to the then National Assembly.

In 2015 the first, and to date the only, tribunal to be established by the National Assembly or Senedd was created, with responsibilities over the Welsh language.

The Welsh Tribunals are the only judicial bodies administered by the Welsh Government. The Wales Act (2017) expressly recognised the Welsh Tribunals’ position in growing Welsh nationhood and created the role of the President of the Welsh Tribunals. This is the first senior judicial appointment since 1830 relating solely to Wales.

There are many strengths to this Tribunal system. It is vitally important for people to understand their rights as citizens of this country, and while the Conservatives are excluding people from the process, on issues like voting rights, nationality, and human rights, Plaid Cymru wants to include people.

The Welsh Tribunals do this in several ways: there are no hearing fees, they are designed to be faster in processing hearings, they are not structured in an adversarial manner like most court hearings, they are less formal, and they are easier to navigate without a representative.

On top of this, Welsh Tribunal judges represent Wales’s demographic much more proportionally than other sectors. 9% of Welsh Tribunal Judges are Black, Asian and minority ethnic compared to 3% of judges in the non-devolved courts and tribunals, 5% of Magistrates and 1.8% of police officers. This is fundamental to a fairer justice system in our society; for those who pass judgement to reflect the society they live in and to correct some of the wrongs that our mostly white, male, and upper-middle class system has done in the past.

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Despite covering important areas such as mental health, education and housing, the Welsh Tribunals have been largely ignored or forgotten. This is partly because of the haphazard, and reactive nature of the devolved settlements in Wales which has never looked at the bigger picture.  

We have had four devolution settlements in Wales since 1999 and the current system does not feel very settled. It was a huge oversight that the County Court of England and Wales was designated by the then National Assembly as the forum for resolving most disputes under the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 and the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016.

In future, the Welsh Tribunals should be used for dispute resolution in Welsh legislation. If a current Tribunal cannot be used, then a new one can be established as was the case with the Welsh Language Tribunal.

There is a chance to change for the better with last month’s Law Commission report on Welsh Tribunals. Outside a very small niche, it has received next to no attention, but its recommendations include significantly expanding the Welsh Tribunals and creating an Appeal Tribunal. This will be the first Welsh appellate body of its kind since the early 19th century. The Welsh Appeal Tribunal will only hear a very small number of cases to begin with but will increase as the Welsh Tribunals expand. It will also create case law which will expand Welsh law.

READ MORE: Carwyn Jones on the threat to human rights in the UK

Through the Welsh Tribunals we have a chance to build a better justice system in Wales. The Welsh Government can implement all the Law Commission’s recommendations. We do not need to wait for Westminster’s permission. I believe that we can go even further and use the Welsh Tribunals as the basis for our very own justice system in Wales. Showing how we can do things better in Wales.

It’s time for Wales to step up, to introduce a new justice system based on the principles of fairness and accessibility, or we’ll be absorbed into a reactionary and authoritarian half-baked Tory system.

Rhys ab Owen is a Senedd Member for South Wales Central. 

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