Court reform

Westminster update: Law Society bill referenced in Lords

Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.

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Read our latest research showing the declining numbers of duty solicitors across England and Wales. Our latest maps also show how the average age of a criminal duty solicitor has risen from 47 in 2018 to 49 in 2021.

What you need to know

1. Judicial Review and Courts Bill: Law Society views referenced in the Lords

The Law Society’s support for removing the presumption in favour of using suspended and prospective-only quashing orders from the Judicial Review and Courts Bill was referenced in Monday’s committee stage debate (21 February).

Removing the presumption is the Law Society’s priority for improving the Bill, and Lord Etherton (Crossbench) referenced the Law Society by name in explaining his support for Amendment 13 which would delete the provision containing the presumption.

A number of peers spoke in favour of Amendment 13, including Lord Anderson of Ipswich (Crossbench), Lord Marks (Liberal Democrat) and Baroness Chakrabarti (Labour).

However, the amendment was not put to a vote, and nor were other amendments supported by the Law Society including one that would remove the power to make prospective-only quashing order.

The bill will now proceed to report stage, at which it is likely that the amendment on removing the presumption will be tabled again and voted on. No date has yet been set for report stage.

2. Legal aid: MPs debate provision in the North West

MPs debated the provision of legal aid in north-west England on Tuesday (22 February). The Law Society was mentioned six times during the debate, with our criminal duty solicitor heatmaps and civil legal aid desert maps referenced heavily by MPs.

Rebecca Long-Bailey (Labour) opened the debate by saying that justice is being rationed across the UK. She quoted the Law Society’s view that cuts to legal aid rates are making criminal legal aid work unviable.

She also highlighted our duty solicitor heatmaps showing that the Southport criminal duty solicitor scheme has only two solicitors, and Knowsley has only six. To rectify this, Long-Bailey endorsed our view that the 15% increase in criminal legal aid rates recommended by the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid (CLAIR) should be implemented urgently. For civil legal aid, Long-Bailey echoed our call for rates to rise and for the administration of civil legal aid to be reformed.

The shadow legal aid minister, Afzal Khan, argued that those at risk of domestic violence or homelessness could not be guaranteed access to legal aid. Khan highlighted the Law Society’s advice desert maps and noted they showed the dire provision of civil legal aid across the country. He also quoted our call for the recommendations of CLAIR to be implemented as quickly as possible.

Responding for the government, legal aid minister James Cartlidge said that 2022 would be a “big year for legal aid”. He said the government is engaging with the professions on civil legal aid to increase understanding of the system. He said it is also considering remuneration rates, the careers pipeline and the ability of providers to offer legal aid services into the future.

On criminal legal aid, Cartlidge acknowledged that many people want the timescales accelerated, but stated that the government has to abide by public law principles on consultations and so would respond to CLAIR by the end of March. He also highlighted his engagement with the Law Society and other professional bodies.

View our civil legal aid desert maps

3. Scrutiny continues of Nationality and Borders Bill

Peers resumed their scrutiny of the Nationality and Borders Bill as it finished its final days of committee stage in the House of Lords on Tuesday (8 February) and Thursday (9 February).

The Law Society’s concerns with the bill's changes to the standard of proof required for asylum seekers were quoted by Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Conservative). She highlighted our view that the bill could see genuine refugees barred from being granted asylum, as well as increased delays and litigation as the parameters of the new requirements are established.

Responding for the government, the justice minister Lord Wolfson said the bill would create a clear test for asylum seekers to meet, with steps for the courts and others to follow, and would lead to better decision making and consistency in the asylum system.

Peers debated clause 39, which would increase the sentence for illegal entry into the UK. Labour’s shadow home affairs spokesperson, Lord Coaker, argued that the clause would criminalise seeking asylum in the UK, which could lead to a prison sentence of four years, and that it is inconsistent with the UK’s obligations under the Refugee Convention.

Home Office minister Baroness Williams of Trafford defended the clause, arguing that migrants are making dangerous journeys and that the government needs to “reduce the allurement of the UK” for those “who disregard readily available opportunities to seek refuge at earlier points”.

The bill has now completed its committee stage and will begin its report stage on 1 March.

Read our briefing

4. Legal aid for early advice: MPs approve pilots

MPs debated and approved a statutory instrument to establish two pilot schemes for legal aid for early advice in housing, debt and welfare benefits on Thursday (24 February). The pilots will be established in Middlesbrough and Manchester, providing three hours of early advice for a selected cohort of people. The pilots are intended to establish clear evidence of the value of early advice and how it can prevent problems escalating into serious debt or homelessness.

The Law Society was mentioned by shadow legal aid minister Afzal Khan, who highlighted our legal aid desert maps and raised concerns about the capacity of local providers to meet demand upon them. Responding, legal aid minister James Cartlidge said that the numbers of people in the pilot are relatively small so capacity should not be an issue.

The SI will now be considered by the House of Lords.

5. Trade with India: MPs debate UK-India trade priorities

MPs debated the India and UK trade negotiations on Tuesday (22 February). Bob Blackman (Conservative) opened the debate by talking about the opportunities in negotiating a trade deal with India post Brexit as a free trading nation. He highlighted the opportunity for legal services noting that “India, after all, has the same basic legal system as we have”.

Virendra Sharma (Labour) also spoke about the similar legal systems in the UK and India and stated that “education and legal services are ripe for a sector-specific deal”.

Concerns over human rights abuses in India were raised by several MPs and the importance of human rights considerations in any trade deal with India.

The minister for international trade, Ranil Jawardena, said in regard to legal services that the government was “exploring how we can increase our trade and co-operation in legal services” as part of a trade deal.

Addressing the points made about human rights, the minister said that the government “condemn[s] any instances of discrimination of religion or belief, regardless of the country or faith involved. Where we have concerns, we raise them directly with the Government of a particular country, including the Government of India, at official and ministerial levels”.

Coming up

The Law Society will be working closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills and inquiries:

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