Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
One thing you need to do
Today we are holding a drop-in event for MPs to learn more about our legal aid deserts campaign. Use our online tool to encourage your MP to attend.
Five things you need to know
1. Boris Johnson tops first Conservative leadership ballot
Last Friday Conservative MPs voted for the first time in the ongoing leadership election. Nominations closed on Monday, with candidates having to be nominated by eight colleagues to make it onto the ballot paper.
To make it through the first ballot, candidates had to recieve more than 16 votes: leadership hopefuls Esther McVey MP, Mark Harper MP, and Andrea Leadsom MP were all unsuccessful in this and have been eliminated from the contest.
The vote saw Boris Johnson MP achieve by far the most support, securing 114 votes - more than a third of those available, so enough to see him through to the final pair if this level of support can be retained. He was followed by foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt MP and environment secretary Michael Gove MP, on 43 and 37 respectively. Together, the three were the only candidates to receive enough votes to meet the threshold to proceed past the second round of voting, although others still in the contest have until Tuesday 18 June to secure 33 or more supporters. Following the result of the first ballot, despite progressing to the next round, Matt Hancock MP also withdrew from the race.
After the second ballot the contest will return to a traditional run-off system, with the candidate with the fewest votes eliminated each round until two remain - the pair will be announced on Thursday 20 June. They will then have just over a month to campaign before the final poll of party members (rather than MPs) decides the winner.
2. New report puts criminal justice on trial
Last Friday the Law Society published a new report on issues across the criminal justice system.
The report shows how failures in the system are leading to injustice, negative impacts on people’s lives, and increasing pressure on the criminal justice system.
As part of the report, we are calling on the government to address the problems by adopting our 11 policy recommendations on criminal justice, which include:
- uprating the legal aid means test in line with inflation
- abolishing 'warned', 'block' and 'floating' lists
- increasing criminal legal aid fees
We have also called for a criminal legal aid task force bringing together the entire sector - solicitors, barristers, prosecutors and the judiciary - to help improve the system for all.
3. Law Society arguments on probate referenced by peer
Last Thursday Baroness Browning asked an oral question in the House of Lords on what action the government is taking to reduce delays in probate being granted to non-professional claimants.
In her question, Baroness Browning (Conservative) referenced the Law Society's opposition to the government's proposals to raise probate fees from a flat rate of £215 (£155 if done through a solicitor) to a sliding scale of fees rising to as much as £6,000.
Our argument that the delays were likely the result of a rush of applications caused by the new fee proposals was also used by the Lib Dem justice spokesperson Lord Marks, who asked whether the government had considered abandoning the proposals following the House of Lords' regret motion passed in December 2018.
Responding for the government, Lord Keen of Elie stated that there were two factors that had led to the increased waiting times:
- first, there was a 22% increase in the number of applications in March, which he said may have been a response to the anticipated fee increase
- second, he said the move over in respect of the digital probate service from three probate registries to the Courts & Tribunals Service centre in Birmingham towards the end of March had led to a few difficulties in that period, which have now been overcome
He said that those pressures had now been addressed and the time taken to process applications was no longer increasing. He said they now hope to see these times begin to come down.
Reflecting one of the Law Society's key arguments, Labour justice spokesperson Lord Beecham noted that the purpose of probate fees should be to recover the cost of providing the probate service, not to cross-subsidise other parts of the courts system.
4. Online Courts Bill progresses through House of Lords
The Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill was heard at Committee Stage in the House of Lords last Monday. The Bill would allow for the creation of an Online Procedure Rules Committee which will create online and digitised procedures in civil courts and tribunals.
The Law Society have three key recommendations for the Bill:
- A right to choose - We believe that primary legislation should provide for parties to a case to have the right to choose whether they wish to proceed with an online procedure or not. In cases of dispute between parties, the court or the judiciary should decide which procedure to follow.
- A balanced rules committee - We believe that the make-up of the Online Procedure Rules Committee should include at least one representative from each of the solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive professions to ensure that it has access to the experience of the different professional users of the courts.
- Appropriate scrutiny - New online rules may present a significant transformation in the way in which justice is delivered in our courts. We believe that online procedure rules should be subject to proper scrutiny in Parliament when proposed.
During Committee Stage, concerns were raised that the Bill would give the lord chancellor strong powers to require cases to be resolved online, and to overlook the recommendations of the new Online Procedure Rules Committee. Several amendments were discussed which would limit these powers and provide for further scrutiny of any rules that come forward.
The Bill will be heard at Report Stage in the House of Lords on 24 June.
5. Criminal legal aid fee review examined by cross-party Group
Law Society vice president Simon Davis spoke at an APPG on Legal Aid event about the criminal legal aid fee review last Wednesday.
During the event, Simon Davis spoke about the shortage of criminal duty solicitors, and that no increase to their legal aid fees has occurred since 1998. He reiterated concerns that the summer of 2020 is a very distant deadline for the review. There will be delays in implementation and the review may be distracted at points. He argued that there needs to be a sticking plaster and called for the raising of fees in line with inflation in the interim now.
The meeting also heard from:
- Karen Buck MP, chair of the APPG on Legal Aid
- Richard Atkins, chair of the Bar Council
- Greg Powell, immediate past president of the LCCSA
- Emma Fenn, barrister at Garden Court Chambers
- Jelena Lentzos, head of the criminal legal aid policy, Ministry of Justice
All of the panellists noted the concerns of the profession and a willingness to address issues in the review.
Coming up this week
All eyes next week will remain on the Conservative leadership election, with the second poll of Conservative MPs happening on Tuesday, and a series of further votes between then and Thursday, when a final pair is to be announced.
In the Commons, there will be a General Debate on court closures and access to justice on Thursday, and a question on the Home Office's use of algorithms on Wednesday.
In the Lords, there will be a question on government outsourcing of justice-related issues to the private sector on Tuesday, and the European Union Committee will question Cabinet Minister David Lidington MP on Brexit progress on Wednesday.
If you made it this far
The Law Society has recently unveiled the report of its Technology and the Law Policy Commission, which has conducted a year-long investigation into the use of algorithms in the criminal justice system.
Question or comments? Contact the Public Affairs team at email@example.com or 020 7320 5858.