Detained mental health patients face being denied fair access to justice under government plans to axe a key watchdog, its head has warned.
The Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council helps to promote access to justice for people challenging administrative decisions by the state, in areas such as disability benefit claims or the detention of people with mental health problems.
In October last year, the government announced that it wanted to close the body as part of the Public Bodies Bill, with the Ministry of Justice to carry out its statutory functions. The current timeline suggests it could close by January next year.
However, AJTC chair Richard Thomas said he doubted whether the MoJ had the capacity to take on the extra workload and warned: “There will no longer be an independent voice for the user.”
His warning follows a report today by the AJTC and the Care Quality Commission on the experience of mental health patients challenging their detention through the First-Tier Tribunal (Mental Health). It found patients had faced significant anxiety or distress due to delays in hearings.
The decision to axe the AJTC was also criticised by former Tory health minister Lord Newton, who warned it had the potential to lead to poor justice outcomes for hundreds of thousands of people, in a debate on the Public Bodies Bill this week.
Like Thomas, he raised concerns about the MoJ’s capacity to take on the extra work, adding: “I simply do not believe that the MoJ can do what it says on the tin”, warning that he did not see the ministry criticising administrative justice decisions taken by other government departments.
He added: “We are talking about hundreds of thousands of social security claimants, people claiming disability benefits, people who are under compulsory orders going to mental health tribunals and a whole range of others.”
“Given that we are talking about the interests of many of the least articulate and most vulnerable people in our society, this is totally in conflict with coalition rhetoric,” he said.
Responding for the government, justice minister Lord McNally said: “The AJTC is relatively expensive for the job it does; the context in which it operates has changed enormously since the council and its predecessor, the Council on Tribunals, were founded; and this in turn makes the exercise of its functions outside central government unnecessary and, in fact, a duplication of efforts and resources.”
An MoJ spokesperson added: “Since the advent of the Tribunals Service, which provides centralised administration and a single judiciary for central government tribunals, the need for an advisory oversight body has reduced.”
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