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New priorities for justice

09 September 2016

Alexandra Cardenas provides an overview of the lord chancellor's first session of Justice Oral Questions and looks at priorities for her department.


Parliament came back from summer recess this week. The newly appointed Lord Chancellor, Rt Hon Liz Truss MP, gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee and discussed policy priorities for her department. As expected, she confirmed that she will carry on with the reform of the court and prison system, as initiated by her predecessor Michael Gove.

She reiterated the government's commitment to introducing a British Bill of Rights, as anticipated in the Queen's Speech in May. However, proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act will not include withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights: 'there are big problems with the Human Rights Act that are nothing to do with the Convention, problems that have only emerged since the Human Rights Act came in', she said. 

The Lord Chancellor also took part in the round of Justice Questions were a number of issues were discussed, including her department's work to promote English law, the rule of law, and the legal services sector after Brexit, social mobility within the profession, legal aid deserts, and court reform.

The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Rt Hon David Davis MP, made a statement on his department's work since the referendum. In line with the position recently expressed by the Prime Minister, Davis repeated that there would be no attempt to stay in the EU by the back door, nor any attempts to delay or engineer a second referendum. 

In the House of Lords, peers continued to discuss amendments to the Investigatory Powers Bill. The Report Stage of the Bill will take place later in October. 

Monday 5 September

Government

Ministerial statement from the Department for Exiting the European Union

David Davis MP, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, made a statement on the department's work since the referendum. While mentioning the engagement his department has undertaken with businesses, Davis said that it was clear that not all businesses had the same priorities. In particular, people in the City had very different views on passporting. On access to the single market, Davis said that the government was aiming to get the 'best possible access', but this did not necessarily mean membership to the EU. He also dismissed the idea that there needed to be a trade-off between access to the single market and restrictions on the freedom of movement. 

Emily Thornberry MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, criticised Davis' statement for failing to provide any details of the government's plan for Brexit. She asked for a full negotiating strategy and for serious consultation with other Member States. Thornberry also called for Parliament to have a vote before Article 50 is triggered. 

Read the statement in full

House of Lords

Investigatory Powers Bill

Day four of Committee Stage took place in the House, where peers continued to discuss amendments to the Bill.

Tuesday 6 September

Parliament

House of Commons: Justice Oral Questions

The Lord Chancellor and her new ministerial team undertook their first session of Justice Oral Questions. The key topics that were discussed were the replacement of the Human Rights Act, claims against the armed forces, and social mobility in the profession. There were also specific questions on legal aid deserts and the promotion of English law, which the Public Affairs team briefed a number of MPs on. The key points were: 

Promoting English law 

• Pauline Latham MP (Con, Mid Derbyshire) asked whether the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) would promote English law, the rule of law and our legal sector to take advantage of opportunities from Brexit. The Lord Chancellor noted that English law has had a huge impact in spreading the rule of law across the world and was the law of choice in a quarter of jurisdictions. She said that championing our £25bn legal services industry will be a key part of her work in a post-Brexit Britain.

Legal aid deserts

• Following a question from Kate Hollern MP (Lab, Blackburn) on a legal aid desert in East Lancashire, the Minister for Courts and Legal Aid, Oliver Heald QC MP, said that people could get legal aid in housing cases and that there is a free helpline and lawyers across the country to provide it.

Claims against the armed forces 

• Following a question from Jack Lopresti MP (Con, Filton and Bradley Stoke), the Lord Chancellor said she was delighted that the Legal Aid Agency 'pulled the plug on Public Interest Lawyers'. She said that legal aid should support vulnerable people in our society, not spurious cases against our armed forces. 

Social Mobility

• The Shadow Lord Chancellor, Richard Burgon MP, asked a question about the cost of legal qualifications being beyond many from ordinary backgrounds. The Lord Chancellor noted that she will be discussing this with the legal profession. She noted that there was more diversity at the younger end of the profession and that she wanted to work to ensure more transparency on people moving up the profession. She also said she was a 'huge fan' of apprenticeships and that the apprenticeship levy would bring opportunities for large legal firms to get more apprentices. 

• In response to a question from John Pugh MP (Lib Dem, Southport) on social mobility and social diversity within the legal professions, the Lord Chancellor stated that 13 per cent of QCs were women and 6 per cent of QCs come from a BAME background. She indicated she wanted a justice system and legal services that worked for all. She noted that the Lord Chief Justice had expressed his commitment to increasing diversity. 

Human Rights Act

• In response to a question from former Human Rights Minister Dominic Raab MP (Con, Esher & Walton), the Lord Chancellor confirmed that the government was committed to scrapping the Human Rights Act and bringing in a new Bill of Rights. A draft Bill would be published in due course.  

• The Lord Chancellor stated that the most important point is that we had the UK Supreme Court as the ultimate arbitrator and reconfirmed the Prime Minister's commitment that the UK would not withdraw from the ECHR. She argued that the Bill of Rights would 'enhance' human rights and that the UK would continue to lead the world. 

Court reform 

• Jonathan Djanogly MP (Con, Huntingdon) asked whether effective court administration was going hand in hand with investment. The Minister for Courts and Legal Aid said that it was right that we had a programme of transformation to maintain the high quality of our legal system. 

Courts and tribunal fees 

• In response to questions from a number of SNP and Labour MPs, the Minister for Courts and Legal Aid reconfirmed that the government would be responding to the Justice Select Committee report on courts and tribunal fees and publish its review into employment tribunal fees in due course. 

Family justice 

• Douglas Carswell MP (UKIP, Clacton) asked for an update on Sir James Munby's review into family courts and whether the government will end the secrecy within the family courts. The Lord Chancellor said she would meet Sir James Munby next week. 

Court closures

• David Nuttall (Con, Bury North), Andrew Gwynne (Lab, Stockport) and Andrew Bingham MP (Con, High Peak) asked questions about court closures in their constituencies. The Minister for Courts and Legal Aid reiterated his commitment to reforming the court system.

Wednesday 7 September

Parliament

House of Commons

The Justice Select Committee heard evidence from the new Lord Chancellor, Rt Hon Liz Truss MP, about her work as Secretary of State for Justice. She highlighted the priorities for her department:

  • Prisons reform
  • Examination of the overall justice system
  • British Bill of Rights

Legal Services Act review

Alberto Costa MP (Con) asked whether the MoJ would undertake a review of the Act. He also asked about the department's plans to make regulators independent from the professional bodies. She replied by saying she had no view at this stage and she would look into it. 

Access to justice

Rupa Huq MP (Lab) raised a number of access to justice issues, including legal aid cuts, court closures and the huge fall in employment tribunal cases. 

The Lord Chancellor agreed that there were closures, but that huge estate investment was happening to make the local judicial process more modern and that HMCTS was recruiting a new CEO. She also noted that legal aid in England and Wales was still one of the most generous in the world.

Legal aid and LASPO

Huq MP asked about the LASPO review. Truss said she would be assessing the whole situation, and reminded the committee that the report on employment tribunals is due shortly. She reiterated that the England and Wales has a generous legal aid system.

Diversity

Huq also asked how the Lord Chancellor intended to increase diversity within the judiciary and the legal profession. Truss said that the legal sector as a whole did not have enough and that this was an issue. She also said the whole system needed to represent and reflect communities – both for the Bar and the solicitors' professions. She added that she expected that this issue would be discussed in the meeting with the Law Society.

Court fees

Alex Chalk MP (Con) asked whether, on principle, she agreed that it was a proper use of court fees to be a 'revenue raiser' for government. She said that she was still making decisions in this area. However, those who can afford should pay for using the court system.

British Bill of Rights

Bob Neill asked whether there was going to be a consultation, a draft bill and pre-legislative scrutinity before the Bill was published. He also asked whether the Bill would seek to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). The Lord Chancellor confirmed that there would be a consultation. A draft bill subject to pre-legislative scrutiny was something she was looking into. She said that the Bill would not contain any provisions to withdraw from the ECHR. 

Richard Arkless MP (SNP) asked about the application of the Bill to devolved administrations. She responded by saying that the Bill will apply to the UK as much as the Human Rights Act. She refused to give more detail by saying that a more comprehensive plan would be sketched out in the consultation document. 

Brexit

David Hanson MP (Lab) asked about the EU Arrest Warrant and future relationship with the European Court of Justice. The Lord Chancellor confirmed that her department was working with the Department for Exiting the European Union and International Trade department on MoJ related issues. She also mentioned that legal services must be represented in the discussion when trade agreements are negotiated.

Read the transcript of the session in full

House of Lords

Investigatory Powers Bill

Day five of Committee Stage took place in the House, where peers continued to discuss amendments to the Bill.

Committee session on Brexit and financial services

The EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee held a two-part session with academics, journalists, and financial services representatives to discuss the future of Britain's financial sector in relation to Brexit. The witnesses agreed that the process of leaving the EU would slow GDP growth. They added that the timeline was very tight and financial services firms need time to adjust.

In particular, it was argued that London's role in financial services had been reliant on passporting rights. The worst-case scenario of an exit into WTO rules would mean there are limited business lines that banks could continue to access. 

Watch the session in full (the transcript has not yet been published)

Thursday 8 September

Nothing to report.

Friday 9 September

Nothing to report.

Tags: Westminster weekly update | British Bill of Rights | Brexit

About the author

Alexandra Cardenas is Head of Public Affairs and Campaigns at the Law Society. Public Affairs manages the relationships with parliament and government. She is a dual qualified solicitor in England and Wales (2014), and Colombia (2002). Prior to the Society, she practised as a human rights lawyer and worked at Macmillan Cancer Support and Animal Defenders International.

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