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Access to Justice for Tribunal Users

25 January 2013

Speaking at the opening of Tribunal Reform: The Way Ahead conference in the Bar Library, Belfast, the Minister said: “ Tribunals are a key part of the civil justice system. They deal with a wide range of disputes, mostly between individuals and the State, and offer important protections against unfair treatment. The tribunals operated by my Department deal with approximately 16,000 cases a year, often involving the most vulnerable people in our society .

“ My proposals will support the earlier resolution of disputes and, where this is not possible, will provide a tribunal system which is simple and accessible for users .”

University of Ulster Vice Chancellor, Professor Richard Barnett, welcomed the publication of the Department’s proposals, saying: “I am delighted that we are able to provide a platform for the Justice Minister’s important speech and for the launch of the consultation paper on tribunal reform.

“The University through the School of Law, has been working effectively with a range of partners in the Department of Justice, the courts and tribunals and with Law Centre (NI), to progress the agenda for tribunal reform in Northern Ireland.”

Les Allamby, Director of Law Centre (NI), said that reforming the tribunal system in Northern Ireland comes one step closer today with the launch of this consultation paper by the Minister.

He added: “More people go to tribunals than courts. Tribunals deal with entitlement to benefits, unfair dismissal and discrimination at work, whether someone can be detained in a mental health institution, access to special educational needs and many other important issues. We are delighted that many of the findings and recommendations of research we commissioned from Gráinne McKeever and Brian Thompson have influenced the consultation document.

“The consultation document recognises the importance of the tribunal user and the need for an independent and accessible tribunal system with appropriate oversight. The conference will also highlight the importance of independent advice and support.”

Senior Law Lecturer at the University of Ulster and conference organiser, Gráinne McKeever, welcomed the Justice Department’s “commitment to user-focused reform of the tribunal system in Northern Ireland. This is part of a broader commitment to ensuring effective access to justice for those who use the tribunal system.

“My research demonstrates why reform is needed, and what user-focused reform could look like. I am pleased that a number of the recommendations from these research reports are now part of the Department’s consultation paper. A key issue, for example, is the difficulty faced by unrepresented users navigating what is often complex legal terrain.”

The Department is now inviting responses to the consultation document.

Caption: Attending the conference on Tribunal Reform; (from left) University of Ulster Vice Chancellor Professor Richard Barnett, Senior Law Lecturer, Gráinne McKeever, Justice Minister David Ford, and Les Allamby, Director of Law Centre (NI).


1.GráinneMcKeever co-authored the report, ‘Redressing Users’ Disadvantage: Proposals for Tribunal Reform in Northern Ireland’ (2010) with Brian Thompson from the University of Liverpool. It was commissioned by the Law Centre and funded by the Nuffield Foundation. McKeever is also author of a further report on ‘Supporting Tribunal Users: Access to pre-hearing information, advice and support in Northern Ireland’ (2011). Brian Thompson also authored a further report, ‘Structural Tribunal Reform in Northern Ireland’ (2011). All reports are available at

2. The University of Ulster recently established a unique Masters programme in Clinical Legal Education within the School of Law, to meet the demand for advice and representation in industrial/fair employment tribunals and social security appeal tribunals.

Postgraduate law students are trained to provide information, advice and representation on social security and employment law cases to members of the public through the Ulster Law Clinic based at the Belfast campus and through placement with the Legal Support Project in the Law Centre.

The course has been introduced following the research by Gráinne McKeever and Brian Thompson for Law Centre (NI) in 2010 and 2011 which led to proposals for the reform of Northern Ireland’s tribunal system, including improved access to advice and representation for tribunal users.