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A New Book of Blegywryd? Restoring Legal Authority to Wales

04/08/2022

Simon Thomas is Plaid Cymru's Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales and education spokesperson.


Who was Blegywryd? It seems that he was a layman from the tenth century, who was chiefly responsible for collating Welsh laws in the name of Hywel Dda. He was described in documentation as Howeli turbe legis doctor—master of law to Hywel’s retinue. That could, these days, be used as a description for the Counsel General. I was fortunate enough to have studied Welsh at Aberystwyth and I had to read the book of Blegywryd, not because of its legal connotations, but because of its language.

I want to concentrate on two issues: first, the development of a Welsh jurisdiction and, secondly, the concept of bringing together the legislation already in existence in Wales in one statute book for Wales—a new book of Blegywryd. Of course, unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales lost its jurisdiction under the Acts of Union.

The main aim of the Acts of Union was to establish a single legal jurisdiction in Wales and the supremacy of English law. There was only one law, and despite the fact that occasional pieces of legislation were made, not until the last century did we see a definite move towards legislation for Wales only. Some of us are old enough to remember the referendum of 1979, and some of us are old enough to remember the local referenda on opening pubs on Sundays—of course, they were part of separate legislation for Wales. In 1942, the first Wales-only piece of legislation in the modern age was created, allowing for the use of the Welsh language in the courts system.Many Welsh Acts followed, including the Government of Wales Act 2006 and the provision for the referendum. It is appropriate that we should now be looking at the restoration of a legal jurisdiction for Wales.

What would be the rationale and reasoning for that? First, it is to do with national pride and the journey of our nation.

Secondly, the administration of justice goes hand in hand with jurisdiction, If you legislate, then you should also have rights and responsibility over the criminal and civil justice system in your country.

Thirdly, it brings us in line with the other nations of the UK.

It is worth paying attention to what was laid out by Sir Roderick Evans as the five key precedents for a specifically Welsh legal system. The first is the return of the functions of creating legislation to Wales, and that has been achieved by the referendum and the 2006 Act. The second is the development of professional institutions in Wales that give a true career structure to those who want to follow a career in those areas, and that is in the pipeline with developments such as Legal Wales and the establishment this month of the Hywel Dda Institute at Swansea University. The third is the law being seen as accessible and easily understood by the people of Wales.

It is apparent that the law is not yet accessible or easily understood by everyone in Wales. The fourth is the development of a system that allows the use of both Welsh and English, giving equal status to both languages. The Assembly has been innovative in that regard over the last few years.

The fifth, and perhaps most important, is the development in Wales of a system to administer justice in all its forms that is tailored to the economic and social needs of Wales. The justice system, that is the police, probation service, prisons and so on are still mainly funded and administered from Westminster, although there have been exciting developments in the spirit of the administration of these since the end of the 1990s.

As the Assembly adds to its legislative powers, a number of steps were taken towards establishing a distinct jurisdiction for Wales. There is the Administrative Court in Wales in Cardiff, the Court of Appeal sitting in Cardiff, in criminal and civil cases, and most cases of judicial review that relate to decisions by public authorities in Wales are held here in Wales, including, most recently, on the issue of badgers. There is a move towards establishing one tribunal system in Wales, and we have legislated here to establish a new tribunal system under the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, and it would be good to see the administration of tribunals in Wales under one regime, which would make things much more tidy and understandable by those who have to use tribunals. Finally, but this is important symbolically, is the reorganisation of the boundaries of the administration of justice in Wales, when the old system of Wales and Chester came to an end, and Her Majesty’s Courts Service was created for Wales alone.

Of those five things, therefore, three are in place, one is in the pipeline and one is yet to be started, namely, forming a statute book for Wales. The question facing us, therefore, is what we do next to promote the process and to ensure that any development is sensible.

It is important to outline some of the things that could happen in the next few years.

First, we need to expand on the provision in Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006 to include the administration of justice as a devolved area. We need to devolve the administration of justice—not the law, but the administration—to Wales.

Secondly, responsibility for the administration of justice should be transferred to the Welsh Government and non-political and non-partisan Welsh legal officials should be established.

Devolving responsibility for the probation service, prisons and the police would be part of this first process of establishing a Welsh legal jurisdiction. In accordance with the commitment of the four Welsh police forces, who have already stated that they want to operate on the basis of a Welsh national system and want to facilitate the move towards a devolved police system in Wales.

Finally, and this is very timely, we need a separate legal aid system for Wales. What is happening in Westminster in this regard is a disgrace, and we would certainly want to see this devolved so that we can establish a legal aid system that meets our needs in Wales.

We need to bring the existing laws of Wales, and those that we will make as an Assembly and Senedd, together. The First Minister has outlined 19 new Bills. How are we to ensure that the public is aware of that legislation and that there is support for legislating by the Senedd?

Now is the time to bring those proposals for bringing Welsh law together before the Assembly and the nation, re-establishing the Welsh statute book that was begun 10 centuries ago by Blegywyrd.

The Government should bring Welsh legislation together into a second book of Blegywryd—the first statute book for the first legislative Senedd—to make Welsh law clear and accessible to all.

Wales is developing a legal personality. The spirit of Hywel Dda is walking the corridors of Tŷ Hywel and the Government must prepare the way.

A Law Society debate on ‘A Distinctive Jurisdiction for Wales’ takes place on Thursday 04 August 4 -5pm at the Societies Tent, at the National Eisteddfod, in Wrexham.

The panel includes Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Emyr Lewis and Professor Thomas Watkin. 

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