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Westminster weekly update: Law Society gives evidence on court and tribunal reforms

28 May 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

Read and share our Male Champions for Change report on gender balance in the legal profession, which the Law Society published last Monday.

Five things you need to know

1. Theresa May announces resignation date

Last Friday prime minister Theresa May made a statement outside Number 10 confirming her intention to resign as leader of the Conservative Party on Friday 7 June.

She has recommended that the resultant Conservative leadership election process should start the following week (w/c 10 June), although the 1922 Committee - the Conservative backbench association that oversees and administers the election - have not yet confirmed a timetable. May will stay on as prime minister until a new leader is elected.

If the 1922 Committee operates the same system as used in the 2016 leadership election, Conservative MPs will use run-off voting to reduce a crowded field of candidates to just two. These candidates are then put to Conservative Party membership in a single ballot, with the winner becoming leader.

2. Law Society gives evidence on court and tribunal reforms

Law Society head of justice Richard Miller gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee as part of their inquiry into court and tribunal reform last Tuesday.

Miller appeared on a panel focusing on civil courts and tribunals, alongside Harriet Bosnyak, solicitor at Shelter, and Tessa Buchanan, vice chair of Housing Law Practitioners Association.

During the session Miller raised key concerns regarding the HMCTS modernisation programme. He focused on the closure of civil courts, flexible operating hours and certain elements of the online civil application processes, and argued that HMCTS did not have a clear vision for what they want the service to look like by the end of the modernisation process.

Miller raised concerns that cuts to the legal aid budget had meant that law firms had lost legal aid contracts for housing law assistance because they could not employ a qualified lawyer at the rates that legal aid reimbursement allowed them to pay. He stated that this had left three counties without a legal aid employed housing law practitioner to provide advice or representation and a great number more with only a single provider.

Bosnyak argued that there had been little evaluation of the reforms so far, and Buchanan raised concerns with the use of online procedures in housing hearings.

A further panel focusing on criminal courts gave evidence earlier in the session, with the Magistrates Association, Criminal Bar Association, Birmingham Law Society and Thames Valley Police giving evidence. During the session concerns were raised regarding the HMCTS modernisation programme, the impact of court closures on access to justice, and video links in hearings.

3. Inquiry into family courts and treatment of victims of domestic abuse launched

In the House of Lords, Conservative peer Baroness Newlove asked a topical question about the proposed inquiry, the panel's composition of the panel and its independence from the courts. The advocate-general for Scotland and Ministry of Justice spokesperson, Lord Keen of Elie, confirmed that the government had that morning announced the establishment of an expert panel, which will hold a public call for evidence and report within three months on the issue. He noted that it is the intention that the expert panel will include representatives of the third sector, the judiciary, and the Ministry of Justice.

Shadow justice spokesperson Lord Beecham highlighted Law Society research on the legal aid means test which acts as a barrier to people in poverty from accessing legal advice and representation, including victims of domestic abuse and violence, and asked whether the government will ensure that adequate support is available via the means test review. He called for further action to address the issue that in 61% of domestic abuse cases there are no separate facilities for waiting and for giving evidence by screen or video link. Responding, Lord Keen said that the government are intent on ensuring full access to justice. He said that the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill will come back before the House in the foreseeable future.

4. Pro bono work praised in attorney general questions

Last Thursday morning saw the attorney general, the Rt Hon Geoffrey Cox QC MP, and new solicitor general, Lucy Frazer QC MP, face questions in the House of Commons.

During the session, Alex Chalk MP (Conservative) asked about what steps the government is taking to encourage legal professionals to undertake pro bono work, saying that the amount of work that solicitors undertake pro bono is remarkable. He argued that such advice rights wrongs, protects rights and strengthens the rule of law. He paid tribute to those giving support to victims of atrocities such as the Manchester arena bombing.

Responding, the solicitor general paid tribute to her immediate predecessor in the role, Robert Buckland QC MP, and acknowledged the work that legal professionals do pro bono across the country. She said that the attorney general's Pro Bono Committee met earlier this month to discuss how to raise awareness of pro bono work. She paid tribute to such support and referenced the work of Manchester Law Society in coordinating advice for victims.

Peter Aldous MP (Conservative) thanked the Bar Pro Bono Unit for their work advising his constituents, and spoke about their rebranding to Advocate. Responding the solicitor general acknowledged the work of Advocate and encouraged MPs to refer constituents needing legal advice to them as early as possible.

Ian Lucas MP (Labour) said that solicitors and barristers can only provide pro bono advice if the practices are there. He highlighted desert areas where law firms were going out of business. Responding, the solicitor general said that the Ministry of Justice has been reviewing the legal aid market and said there are some areas where there aren't as many firms as there could be.

Chair of the Justice Committee Bob Neill MP (Conservative) asked the solicitor general to recognise that the valuable work that solicitors and barristers provide pro bono is there to supplement to properly funded legal advice, and that one is not a replacement for the other. Responding, the solicitor general said that the government spend £1.6 billion on legal aid and will continue to look at how best to support people.

5. Ministers appear before Draft Domestic Abuse Bill Committee

Last Tuesday the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill heard oral evidence from crime, safeguarding and vulnerability minister and minister for women Victoria Atkins MP, and victims minister Edward Argar MP.

Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Burt of Solihull referenced the Law Society by name in her questions, asking if the ministers recognised our observation that '“'the issue of perpetrators using the family justice processes to further abuse victims goes beyond simply cross-examination, and includes things such as perpetrators making repeat applications and dragging the process out.'

Argar responded that the government is determined that family courts should never be used to 'further or perpetuate abuse', and referenced the launch of the inquiry into family courts and treatment of victims. Observing that the courts' application of barring orders might be an avenue for reducing vexatious repeat applications, he stressed that children who have been present in households where domestic abuse has occurred should be viewed not just as witnesses, but also victims.

In response to another question from Baroness Burt on the merits of replacing the discretionary ban on cross-examination with an automatic one where there are allegations of domestic abuse, Argar said that the government recognised that victims often choose not to pursue abusers through the criminal justice system and therefore they might not benefit from the prohibition. He argued, however, that the judicial discretionary safeguard was sufficient to protect victims, and that he expected it to be widely used. He also highlighted his wariness of 'extending the provision further than where it is necessary.'

Coming up this week

Parliament will be on recess this week, but all eyes will be on preparations for a Conservative leadership election and the European Parliament election results

Next week, the lord chancellor and his ministerial team will face questions in the House of Commons. At this stage it remains unlikely that the government will introduce the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

If you made it this far

Check out our parliamentary briefing on the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill.

Question or comments? Contact the Public Affairs team at or 020 7320 5858.

Tags: Theresa May | Westminster weekly update | pro bono | 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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