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Westminster weekly update: Law Society gives evidence to MPs on trade in services

01 July 2019

Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.

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1. Law Society gives evidence to MPs on trade in services

Last Wednesday the Law Society's head of international, Mickaël Laurans, gave evidence to the International Trade Select Committee as part of their ongoing enquiry on trade in services, in a session that focused mainly on GATS Mode 4 provision.

Mickaël was joined on the witness panel by Joanna Jacobsson, professor for International and European Law at IE University, and Françoise Guei, an expert in multilateral trade issues from the African, Carribbean and Pacific Group of States Secretariat.

Mickaël emphasised that currently the European directives allows uniform access to member states for UK legal services professionals, and that most Brexit outcomes will lead to them instead encountering 31 different regulatory regimes, some of which do not permit access to third-country lawyers at all. He observed that South Korea’s agreement with the EU is the only EU to liberalise legal services market access, and that a free trade agreement would likely provide the same amount of legal services access as a no deal Brexit. He advised the committee that to secure market access for services in non-EU markets, we will likely have to offer access to the professions the state in question is prioritising.

Owen Smith MP asked how a no deal Brexit would affect service provision, with Gareth Thomas MP asking about how no deal would affect the legal market more generally. Mickaël explained how EU directives let lawyers from member states do everything they need, and observed that it is easier for an English lawyer to give advice in France than it is for a New York lawyer to do so in California. He informed the committee that both leaving without a deal or with an FTA would mean English and Welsh lawyers are likely to face 31 different regulatory regimes, some of which will not be accessible at all. When prompted for examples he referenced Greece and France, referring to Greece’s importance to the shipping trade.

Gareth Thomas MP observed ‘some that support a no deal Brexit would consider significant monetary loss for lawyers to not be a huge loss' and asked for the witness' reaction. Mickaël observed that no deal would also impact judicial co-operation, causing serious problems for families, consumers, and those that have suffered accidents while holidaying.

2. Law Society referenced in Courts Bill debate

Last Monday the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill was heard at Report Stage in the House of Lords. The Law Society was mentioned four times during the debate.

Labour's Justice spokesperson in the House of Lords, Lord Beecham, thanked the minister for engaging and welcomed the commitments to amendment the Bill in a number of areas. He noted the Law Society's support for his amendment to ensure a choice in whether proceedings take place online or in court, and amendments which would ensure the use of the affirmative procedure to further parliamentary scrutiny of any regulations.

A number of amendments which the Law Society were supportive of were agreed. Amendment 22 - would ensure that the appropriate Minister may only give written notice to the Online Procedure Rule Committee to require that they make rules for a specific purpose if he has the agreement of the lord chief justice - was agreed following a vote, while Amendments 1 and 18 - which would ensure that online procedure rules give consideration to those who require technical support in order to initiate, conduct, progress or participate in proceedings by electronic means - were agreed without a vote.

Amendment 12 - which would have required that the Committee includes three persons (rather than two as specified currently in the Bill) who have experience and knowledge of the lay advice sector or IT experience and knowledge relating to end-users’ experience of internet portals - was defeated following a division.

3. Divorce Bill debated in the Commons

Last Tuesday the House of Commons debated the new Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill at Second Reading. The Bill will amend the law to allow couples to seek divorces on a no-fault basis.

The Law Society was referenced twice during the debate by the shadow lord chancellor, Richard Burgon MP, and the shadow justice minister, Yasmin Qureshi MP. Richard Burgon quoted Law Society president Christina Blacklaws' comments on how making couples attribute fault in a divorce can exacerbate conflict, while Yasmin Qureshi cited the law Society's recommendation that legal aid for early advice be reinstated to support divorcing couples and help them reach the best possible settlements.

Several other MPs reflected the Law Society's position on reinstating early advice, while other contributions highlighted the importance of allowing a period of reflection for people seeking a divorce and promoting mediation as a means of resolving disputes during a divorce.

4. Justice Committee takes evidence on court reform

Last Tuesday the Justice Select Committee heard evidence in their ongoing inquiry into court and tribunal reforms. On the witness panel were Jodie Blackstock, legal director, Justice; Penelope Gibbs, director, Transform Justice; Lisa Wintersteiger, chief executive, Law for Life; and Professor Richard Susskind, the technology adviser to the lord chief justice and the president of the Society for Computers and Law.

During the session the committee chair, Bob Neill MP (Conservative) referenced Law Society head of justice Richard Miller's concern about the unclear vision of the court reform program.

All witnesses bar Professor Susskind began by affirming their support for technological innovation and improvement in the justice system, but stressed concerns with the way the process was being handled by HMCTS, criticising a lack of transparency, consultation, and testing. Winterstieger referred to the wider loss of services around the justice sector, and said that too many mistakenly view technology as a solution to the 'evisceration of the advice sector and the loss of legal aid'. Gibbs said the digital improvement programme will 'fundamentally change the way the justice system works involve the closure of hundreds of courts', and expressed her concern that the lack of consultation and parliamentary scrutiny has caused the programme to become 'undemocratic and anti-democratic'.

Professor Susskind argued that the changes were about ensuring 'people who would otherwise have no possible way of affording legal assistance to understand their legal entitlements' and aims 'to put a fence at the top of the cliff, rather than an ambulance at the bottom.'

The session also covered digital literacy in the population, litigants in person, and video hearings.

5. Private members bill to cap ground rents introduced

Last Tuesday Eddie Hughes MP introduced his Ground Rents (Leasehold Properties) Bill via the ten minute rule.

The private members bill will seek to do two things: it will create a legal obligation on freeholders to grant a quick and simple lease variation to leaseholders who are unable to sell their home due to the level of ground rent on the lease; and it will cap ground rents on leasehold properties at the lower of £250 per annum or 0.1% of the value of the lease.

Eddie Hughes also told MPs that he is considering inserting an additional measure into the Bill that would create an obligation on the original developer of a leasehold property to pay any legal bills incurred by the leaseholder as a result of seeking a lease variation because of excessive ground rents.

The Bill was not opposed, and will come back to the House of Commons for its Second Reading at a future date.

Coming up this week

The Law Society will be giving evidence to the House of Commons on the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill on Tuesday. On the same day the Third Reading of the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill will take place in the House of Lords.

On Brexit, a group of backbench MPs will attempt to amend normally routine funding motions called estimates on Monday and Tuesday in an attempt to prevent the Government from pursuing a no deal Brexit. Meanwhile the Lords will be debating a motion on Wednesday to set up a new Joint Committee to assess the impact a no deal Brexit would have on the UK.

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

Tags: Law Society | Westminster weekly update | European Union | 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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