Westminster update: Law Society president gives evidence in parliament

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What you need to know

1. Criminal legal aid: Law Society president gives evidence to MPs

The president of the Law Society, I. Stephanie Boyce, appeared before the Justice Select Committee on Wednesday 27 April to discuss the government’s response to the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid.

Boyce explained how the government’s proposals for solicitors do not meet the review’s central recommendation of a 15% increase in criminal legal aid rates, instead putting forward a package that is 40% below what Sir Christopher Bellamy’s review called for as a minimum.

Boyce also outlined the crisis facing our justice system, with the number of criminal legal aid firms halving since 2007 and only 4% of the profession aged under 35.

If the 15% increase in criminal legal aid rates recommended by Sir Christopher is not implemented, these trends will continue, the courts backlog will worsen and we may see the collapse of our justice system.

The chair of the Bar Council, Mark Fenhalls QC, gave evidence alongside Boyce. He said that while barristers will receive the 15% increase in rates as part of the package, many are choosing to walk away from the profession.

Fenhalls called for investment in the criminal justice system at the earliest stage, including in legal aid for solicitors doing police station work.

The legal aid minister, James Cartlidge, also gave evidence to the committee. He acknowledged that the government’s plans were “not exactly what” Sir Christopher had recommended, but defended the government’s proposed investment in criminal legal aid as a “significant package”.

Cartlidge said his priority is to get funds to the professions quickly and the government is working as fast as it can to achieve this.

Read our response to the government’s proposals

2. Law Society quoted in parliamentary committee’s report on the courts backlog

The Justice Select Committee published its report on the courts backlog and court capacity on 27 April.

The report recognised our concerns about the lack of staff, judges and practitioners available to handle cases, calling for strategic planning and long term resources for the courts.

We gave evidence to the committee and were quoted in the report, which noted our argument that more data is needed on the use of video and audio technology in the courts.

We have been concerned about the effect remote hearings can have on access to justice.

The committee also recommended a courts’ inspectorate to help highlight problems in the justice system. We’ve welcomed this recommendation and hope to work with the Ministry of Justice on its implementation.

However, without proper investment in criminal legal aid, including the 15% increase in criminal legal aid rates recommended by the Ministry of Justice’s recent independent review, it’s unlikely the government will be able to address the courts backlog or improve capacity.

Read our response to the report

3. Judicial Review and Courts Act becomes law

The Judicial Review and Courts Bill received royal assent on Thursday 28 April in a swift move by the government to make it law before parliament prorogues.

The main development came in the consideration of Lords’ amendments debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday 26 April, with the government agreeing to remove the statutory presumption in clause one.

The presumption was our primary concern with the bill, and its removal is a major influencing win for the Law Society.

It means that the long-established and fundamental principle of judicial review – that all remedies are discretionary – will continue and will ensure fair outcomes that fit the circumstances of the case at hand.

MPs and peers alike debated proposed amendments to the bill as opinions remained divided up until the very end.

Prominent MPs such as Sir Bob Neill, chair of the Justice Select Committee, voted against the government as it removed the Lords’ amendment to make legal aid free for bereaved families at inquests.

Andy Slaughter, shadow solicitor general, stated that in inquests the state has unlimited access to taxpayer funding, while grieving families are often forced to pay huge amounts of money out of their own pocket, or else resort to crowdfunding.

Major win for justice and the rule of law: read more

4. Nationality and Borders Act becomes law

The Nationality and Borders Act completed its parliamentary stages on Wednesday 27 April, before receiving royal assent and becoming law.

The act will make wide-ranging changes to the UK immigration process, creating a two-tier asylum system based on whether refugees travel to the UK directly or via another safe country.

Changes will also be made to the amount of evidence asylum applicants are required to have, which may make it more challenging for them to prove they are at risk in their home country.

The act will also give the Tribunal Procedure Committee the power to fine lawyers if it believes they are engaging in “improper” behaviour. This could have a chilling effect on the willingness of solicitors to take on difficult cases as they could be at risk of financial penalties and would also apply to lawyers working for the Home Office.

We’ve raised serious concerns that the act may contravene the UK’s international obligations, including those under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

5. Royal assents

Three other bills that we’ve been working closely with MPs and peers on have also received royal assent:

  • Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act: this act strengthens sentencing laws for serious offences as well as places a new legal duty on different parts of the public sector to work together to tackle serious violence
  • Professional Qualifications Act: this act will allow UK regulators to decide whether an individual with overseas qualifications is fit to practise a regulated profession in the UK and will also make it easier for UK professionals to practise overseas
  • Building Safety Act: this act will enshrine the Building Safety Regulator in law, to provide oversight of how high risk and residential buildings are constructed, with powers of enforcement and sanctions. The Act will also look to implement a raft of new measures to protect leaseholders from the costs of historic building safety defects

Coming up

Parliament’s 2021/22 session has been brought to a close with a prorogation announcement on Thursday 28 April.

The House of Commons and the House of Lords will next sit for the state opening of Parliament on Tuesday 10 May.

The queen’s speech given during the ceremony will set out the government’s legislative agenda for the coming session (2022/23).

Thursday 5 May will see local government elections taking place in parts of England and Wales.

Despite the government’s Elections Act receiving royal assent this week, voters will not yet have to comply with its new voter identification requirement, as this will be gradually rolled out through secondary legislation over the next couple of years.

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