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Westminster weekly update: General election to be held on 12 December

04 November 2019

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

Next week is Pro Bono week 2019 – the Law Society will be hosting a number of events to celebrate the contribution solicitors play to wider society.

Find out how you can take part in Pro Bono week

Five things you need to know

1. General election to be held on 12 December

On Tuesday (29 October) MPs voted in favour of prime minister Boris Johnson’s Bill for an early general election on 12 December by 438 votes to 20.

An amendment tabled by leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn, to change the date of the proposed election to Monday 9 December instead of Thursday 12 December, was rejected by 315 votes to 295. Proposed amendments that would have extended the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds and EU nationals were not taken forward.

The Bill passed its remaining stages in the House of Lords on Wednesday (30 October) and received Royal Assent on 31 October. It will thus dissolve Parliament just after midnight on Wednesday (6 November), at which time all seats in the House of Commons become vacant and unfinished parliamentary business – including the Domestic Abuse Bill and the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill – falls. Unlike prorogation, it is not possible to carry over bills through a dissolution, meaning that all legislation must be re-introduced from scratch in the next Parliament.

The dissolution of Parliament next Wednesday, 25 days before the election, marks the official start of the campaign and the beginning of ‘purdah’, during which the government is prevented by convention from making any major policy announcements or commitments.

Read the full debate on the Bill

2. Extension request granted by European Council

On Monday (28 October) president of the European Council Donald Tusk announced that the UK’s request for an Article 50 extension until 31 January 2020 had been accepted.

This request was sent by the prime minister in compliance with the 'Benn Act', but was unsigned and accompanied by a second letter outlining Johnson’s view that extension would be harmful. Nonetheless the decision to grant the request was made unanimously, without necessitating an emergency summit – leaders of the EU27 were represented by diplomats.

The extension will be flexible, meaning that if a Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and Political Declaration can be passed by the UK and EU parliaments before that point then the UK may enter the transition period early. Under the terms of the extension agreement, Brexit will take place on the first day of the month following the ratification of the WA, or on 1 February 2020, whichever is earlier. The WA is not open for renegotiation in this extension period – however this was also said of the six month extension granted to Theresa May in April. In that instance, EU leaders altered decisions after a new government took office in the UK.

It is, however, contingent on an EU Commissioner nomination from the UK, but this may not be finalised before the end of January. Also included in the proposal is a warning that the UK should not look to take action that would harm or sabotage the bloc during the extension period.

Read the Prime Minister's letter requesting an extension

3. Concerns raised regarding court modernisation programme

On Thursday (31 October) the Justice Select Committee published a report following its inquiry on courts and tribunal reforms. The Law Society provided written and oral evidence to the inquiry, and we were mentioned five times throughout the report. The report makes a series of conclusions and recommendations to the Ministry of Justice which are summarised below:

  • Access to justice – the Committee expressed serious concerns about the effect on access to justice of the court modernisation programme. They criticise HMCTS for not taking sufficient steps to address the needs of vulnerable users, who lack adequate legal advice and support. They argue that face-to-face support is essential, and recommend that by April 2021 the network of assisted digital Online Centres be extended to deliver comprehensive national coverage with walk-in access
  • Administrative chaos – they noted "powerful evidence" of a court system in administrative chaos, with serious staff shortages threatening to compromise the fairness of proceedings. They raised concerns with delays in processing divorce petitions and called on HMCTS to publish ambitious targets for divorce completion times
  • Court closures – they noted half of all magistrates’ courts closed between 2010 and 2018, and that more than a third of county courts also closed. They argued that these closures have created "alarming difficulties for many court users," and note the impact of travel times on court users. They argue that there should be no further court closures without robust independent analysis of the effects of closures already implemented. They reiterate previous recommendations for HMCTS to "urgently establish more supplementary venues (such as pop-up courts in non-traditional courts buildings) and that these should be established in every area where there has been a court closure in the past ten years."
  • Court and tribunal buildings – they note that existing court buildings are "dilapidated and sometimes lack the basics, such as facilities for disabled users." They argue that this is unacceptable and should be addressed
  • Video link and court technology – the Committee argue that the interests of justice are not served by unreliable video equipment and WiFi facilities throughout the criminal courts estate. They call for planned investment to upgrade these systems to be expedited. They argue that there is not enough research on the justice outcomes of video hearings and video links in the UK and call on the Ministry of Justice to commission this. They argue that existing access to online justice processes only via the website should be discontinued and replaced without delay
  • Open justice and the rule of law – the Committee argue that open justice should not "fall by the wayside." They recommend that the senior judiciary convene a working group to consider how to protect and enhance media access to proceedings, and that the Government should commit to piloting public legal education within its action plan for legal support, with a view to rolling out a national programme by 2022
  • Wider vision, engagement and evaluation – the Committee argued that HMCTS have struggled to explain its vision for the reform programme and needs to be more rigorous in engaging with and responding to stakeholders. They call on the Government to do more to evaluate the reforms and their impact

Following its publication, Law Society president Simon Davis welcomed the Committee’s report, arguing that “whilst we broadly support efforts to improve court efficiency through better technology, there will be times when only a face to-face physical hearing will deliver justice.”

Read the full report

4. Opposition raises judicial co-operation in Brexit regulations debate

On Monday (28 October) a Brexit statutory instrument, the Civil Jurisdiction and Judgment (Civil and Family) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, was discussed in the First Delegated Legislation Committee of the House of Commons.

Justice minister Chris Philp MP outlined the purpose of the instrument: to correct minor errors in the previously passed Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 and Jurisdiction and Judgments (Family) (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. These two instruments deal with the EU’s judicial co-operation framework in civil and family matters, revoking Brussels Ia and IIa, and clarifying the interaction between international conventions and domestic law in the case of a no deal Brexit.

Responding, shadow justice Minister Yasmin Qureshi MP said: “The current system creates an affordable and effective process for the recognition and enforcement of intra-European Union judgments. Small traders or consumers can easily take their cases to their domestic courts using local lawyers, and the domestic judgment is then recognised across the whole of the European Union.”

Qureshi then announced the Opposition’s intention to abstain on the vote within the Committee due to a belief that “the government have not done enough to protect people’s rights.” She accused the government of “introducing legislation at the last minute to avoid the inevitable chaos of exiting the EU without a deal.”

The instrument was agreed to by the Committee. As a made affirmative instrument, it must now face a vote in the Commons before the approval period ends on 11 November. It has already passed a vote in the Lords.

Read the text of the instrument

Read the debate

5. APPG on Public Legal Education

On Tuesday morning (29 October), Law Society Operational Director of Policy Paola Uccellari spoke at an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Public Legal Education event on public legal education (PLE) and the new legal needs survey. She was joined by Chair of the APPG on PLE, Alex Chalk MP and representatives from the Solicitors Regulation Authroity, Legal Services Board and Legal Services Consumer Panel.

The event was organised by the APPG to explore limited preliminary findings from the legal needs survey focusing around PLE. During the event Paola Uccellari argued that it is important to ensure that the public are aware of how to respond to legal issues. She noted that legal issues can occur in all aspects of life, whether at work, with family, housing or beyond. She argued that it is important to ensure that legal problems in one area can be resolved before escalating and creating issues elsewhere. She noted the wider impact on the public purse of escalating legal problems and the need for early legal advice.

She set out six ways to tackle increase PLE, and the part that solicitors and the Law Society, play in each of these – through providing a robust evidence base, an overarching strategy, improving education, producing appropriately targeted self-help materials, ensuring legal advice from a solicitor is accessible, and ensuring the public understand the value of seeking advice from solicitors. She noted that there are startling statistics which show how much people value advice from a solicitor or other legal professional.

She spoke about the Law Society’s work with and funding of Young Citizens. She said there is a need for the sector to come together and work together on public legal education to ensure that people are able to recognise when they have a legal problem, and how they can go about resolving it with the help of professional advice.

The full legal needs survey is expected to be published early next year.

Coming up this week

This week will see MPs vote in a secret ballot on Monday (4 November) for a new Speaker of the House of Commons, after outgoing Speaker John Bercow announced his resignation on 9 September

On Monday, outgoing MPs will also have an opportunity to make short valedictory speeches in the Commons, before any final parliamentary business to be discussed before dissolution is debated on Tuesday (5 November).

Parliament will be dissolved just after midnight on Wednesday, at which time any unfinished business will fall and the election campaign will officially begin.

See next week's full calendar of parliamentary business

If you made it this far

Did you see our response to the new Commission on Justice in Wales report?

Read our response

Tags: Westminster weekly update | Brexit | courts

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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