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Westminster weekly update: Law Society mentioned in MoJ spending debate

07 October 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

We have published guidance for solicitors in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It covers eight areas of law and incorporates advice published by the UK government.

Read our guidance

Five things you need to know

1. Conservative Party Conference

We concluded Conference season with a full programme of events at Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.

Last Monday president Simon Davis spoke alongside the solicitor general, Michael Ellis MP, the high commissioner for Australia, George Brandis QC and chair of policy and resources for the City of London, Catherine McGuinness on a panel session exploring how strengthening the rule of law could drive UK competitiveness. During the event, the solicitor general praised the legal services sector as a crucial component of the economy and said that our law and courts are the "platinum standard." He also said the UK would seek to accede to the Lugano Convention and wanted to become a world leader in private international law again. Following questions, the solicitor general stated the importance of an independent judiciary and the need to respect the judgment of the Supreme Court.

We also hosted a drinks reception with the Society of Conservative Lawyers and the Bar Council, where the lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC MP spoke about the criminal justice system, the rule of law and access to justice.

Simon Davis also spoke at a fringe event on vulnerability in the justice system alongside representatives from the Bar Council, Justice and Society of Conservative Lawyers.

See our full Conference programme

Read our conference publication, 'Our vision for law and justice'

2. Domestic Abuse Bill

Last Wednesday the Domestic Abuse Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons.

We briefed MPs regarding the Bill and we're mentioned during the debate.

The debate was marked by several speeches from MPs recounting their own or their constituents’ experiences of domestic abuse.

Opening the debate, the lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC MP described the Bill as a landmark piece of legislation to tackle domestic abuse. He argued that the legislation would put the needs of victims’ front and centre by providing additional protections, strengthening agencies; responses, and amplifying the voice of victims. He noted that where prevention and protection has failed, some victims will seek remedies before the courts, and that the Bill ensures that the victims of domestic abuse are automatically eligible for special measures.

Speaking for the Opposition, shadow women and equalities minister Carolyn Harris MP said that “we cannot afford any more hold-ups. Time is not a luxury that victims of domestic abuse have. Every delay in getting this legislation through is critical.” She said that the Bill also needs to legislate to improve the experiences of survivors and their children in the family courts. “Contact arrangements must be based on the child’s best interests, and parental contact should not be automatic, especially where there is evidence that the child could be at risk.”

Chair of the Justice Select Committee, Bob Neill MP called on the government to “bear in mind the legitimate improvements proposed by the Law Society and others” regarding the proper remuneration of, and a proper system for instructing, the representatives instructed to carry out the cross-examination of victims. He also called on them to consider whether examination in chief could be included in certain circumstances. Responding, the lord chancellor, said that he hopes that issue can be teased out at committee stage.

The Bill would ordinarily now proceed to committee stage. However, with the prorogation of Parliament expected on Tuesday 8 October, Parliament will need to agree a carry-over motion to continue the Bill with its existing progress into the new parliamentary session.

Read the transcript of the session

Watch the session back

3. Law Society mentioned in MoJ spending debate

Last Thursday the chair of the Justice Select Committee, Bob Neill MP, moved to consider the spending of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in the House of Commons. We briefed MPs regarding the Bill and were mentioned directly. Our legal aid deserts and early advice campaigns were also referred to.

Opening the debate, Neill noted that access to justice is a key part of social infrastructure, and that “there is no point in having rights if we cannot access them.” He welcomed the chancellor’s announcement of additional funding to the justice system, but said that he “hopes it will be recognised that spending should not be used as a sticking plaster: there should be opportunity for significant reform so that we spend the money more effectively and more cleverly.”

Bambos Charalambous MP directly referenced information provided in our briefing, regarding the growing shortage of criminal duty solicitors and the ageing of members in the profession, due to the fact that criminal legal aid fees had not been increased for more than 20 years. He referred to the our legal aid deserts campaign and called for urgent action to stop the problem from getting worse, including more money for early legal advice in light of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) review. Andy Slaughter MP also spoke about legal aid deserts, after a lack of increases in fees for criminal defence solicitors.

Ellie Reeves MP spoke about the impact of LASPO upon civil legal aid, noting the impact of the financial means test and the removal of legal aid for early advice upon access to justice. She also spoke about the “emergence of advice deserts in some parts of the country, especially in rural areas.” She argued that the cost of these issues was likely to ultimately cost more than providing legal aid in the first place, and called on the government to reintroduce legal aid for the areas of law removed from scope, and to introduce more generous financial eligibility criteria.

Justice minister Chris Philp MP commented on the overall funding figures for the MoJ, stating that while several MPs referenced a reduction in spending of 40% since 2010, this is based on figures for the 2015 spending review and that, since then, there has been additional spending on MoJ matters from multiple sources that takes the total real-terms reduction of spending to 21%.

Read the full transcript of the debate

4. Brexit developments

Last Wednesday prime minister Boris Johnson announced more proposals for a Brexit withdrawal agreement while addressing the Conservative Party conference.

He said this new withdrawal agreement would “under no circumstances have checks at or near the border in Northern Ireland,” but instead would protect existing regulatory arrangement for farmers and businesses on both sides of the border. Johnson went on to warn that there should be “no doubt that the alternative [to reaching an agreement] is no deal.”

However, this has not been received wholly positively by EU figures, with the Times reporting this morning that EU ambassadors have set an 11 October deadline for the UK to fundamentally amend its position. This follows a demand from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for the government to publish the full legal text of their withdrawal agreement, something Johnson has said he is not planning to do.

Read Johnson’s conference speech

Read Johnson’s letter to Juncker

5. MPs debate leasehold and commonhold reform

Last Wednesday MPs held a Westminster Hall debate on the progress of leasehold and commonhold reform tabled by Sir Peter Bottomley MP. Bottomley argued that new leaseholds should be abolished in almost all cases, and that a way should be found to convert existing leases to commonhold. He claimed that the initial attempt to introduce commonhold failed on account of split ministerial responsibility and a lack of resources on the part of the Ministry of Justice, and argued that if commonhold were implemented successfully it could lead to a rise in property values. He also warned developers that they could not use “lawyers’ letters” to threaten leasehold campaigners with defamation charges.

Responding for the government, housing minister Esther McVey MP restated the government’s existing policy announcements on leasehold, and outlined the additional areas it is looking at. She said that the government has committed to regulating managing agents, including requiring that they are qualified to practise, improving the transparency and fairness of service charges, and introducing a “single mandatory and legally enforceable code of practice to set standards across the sector.”

Read the full transcript of the debate

Coming up this week

This week will see the prorogation of Parliament on Tuesday 8 October, ahead of the Queen's Speech on 14 October.

Today our operational director of legal and regulatory policy Richard Miller will give evidence at the Public Accounts Select Committee oral evidence session in the House of Commons, on 'Transforming Courts and Tribunals: progress review'.

Justice oral questions will be held in the House of Commons on Tuesday 8 October.

If you made it this far

Read lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC MP's address at the Opening of the Legal Year, held on 1 October.

Read the lord chancellor's speech


Question or comments? Contact the Public Affairs team at parliamentary@lawsociety.org.uk or 020 7320 5858.

Tags: Westminster weekly update | Parliament | Conservatives

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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