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Westminster update: Law Society publishes coronavirus guidance

23 March 2020

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 know members will have questions about the implications coronavirus (COVID-19) will have for their clients, their businesses, their professional obligations, and their own wellbeing and that of their employees. We've launched a new web page bringing together the latest official guidance and answers to some of the most pressing questions relating to:

  • member safety
  • business continuity
  • regulatory compliance
  • the rule of law

We're keeping the coronavirus situation under review, and our online resources will be updated regularly to reflect the most recent guidance.

Read and share our guidance and updates on coronavirus

Read our president's statement

Five things you need to know

1. Emergency coronavirus legislation introduced

On Thursday 19 March, the Coronavirus Bill had its first reading in the House of Commons. As an emergency bill, it will undergo all subsequent stages of consideration in the House of Commons on Monday 23 March before going to the House of Lords for consideration. Permission has been given for amendments to be considered at the second reading stage in the House of Commons.

The Bill outlines changes in legislation that the Government states are necessary “in order to give public bodies across the UK the tools and powers they need to carry out an effective response to this emergency.”

The measures proposed in the Bill are time limited for two years and do not come into force immediately, but are able to be “switched on” and “switched off” as necessary by the four UK governments.

Measures within the bill are divided into action in five areas:

  1. Increasing the available health and social care workforce;
  2. Easing the burden on ‘frontline’ staff;
  3. Containing and slowing the virus;
  4. Managing the deceased with respect and dignity; and
  5. Supporting people through the crisis

Key measures outlined include:

  • providing indemnity for clinical negligence liabilities arising from NHS activities carried out because of the coronavirus outbreak
  • expanding availability of video and audio link in court proceedings. This would include magistrates’ court hearings taking place by phone or by video. It will also enable the expansion of the availability of video and audio link in various criminal proceedings, including full video and audio hearings in certain circumstances, and public participation in relation to these and other court and tribunal proceedings conducted by audio and video
  • removing the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 requirement that any inquest into a COVID-19 death must be held with a jury. Other notifiable diseases will still require an inquest with a jury
  • allowing temporary judicial commissioners (JCs) to be appointed at the request of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, in the event that there are insufficient JCs available to operate the system under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016
  • postponing the local, mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections that were due to take place until May 2021. Provision will also be made to postpone other electoral events throughout the year, including local authority elections in Wales
  • enabling police and immigration officers to detain a person, for a limited period, who is, or may be, infectious and to take them to a suitable place to enable screening and assessment
  • enabling existing mental health legislation powers to detain and treat patients who need urgent treatment for a mental health disorder and are a risk to themselves or others, to be implemented using just one doctor’s opinion
  • temporarily allowing extension or removal of time limits in mental health legislation to allow for greater flexibility where services are less able to respond

Other key measures include:

  • giving the government the power to temporarily suspend the rule that means Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is not paid for the first 3 days of work missed because of sickness
  • enabling employers with fewer than 250 employees to reclaim SSP paid for sickness absences relating to coronavirus during the period of the outbreak

Read more about the Bill

See the full text of the Bill

Find out more about what we're doing to respond to coronavirus

2. Private International Law Bill passes Second Reading

Last Tuesday the Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill passed Second Reading in the House of Lords. We briefed before the debate, and was mentioned by name as well as seeing our arguments raised throughout.

Justice minister Lord Keen represented the government, and attested to the importance of private international law, arguing that “without private international law agreements, UK businesses, individuals and families would struggle to resolve the challenges they face when dealing with cross-border legal disputes.”

He said the government intended to “build on and cement our role in international fora” referencing the Hague Conference, the UN Commission on International Trade Law and the Institute for the Unification of Private International Law.

On the Hague Judgments Convention, Lord Collins (speaking for the Labour Party) observed that that the Law Society “had expressed the hope that it will become a central part of future international, civil and commercial law co-operation.”

He welcomed the Bill and its principal objectives, but said he intended to seek clarifications of “several issues” throughout the Bills’ passage, in particular future family law provisions.

Lord Keen confirmed the government’s intention to use the delegated powers in the Bill to implement the Lugano Convention, should the UK’s application to accede be accepted. He also said the government is considering joining the 2019 Singapore Convention and 2019 Hague Judgments Conference. He said the powers afforded to the government were “narrow,” covering only agreements designed to facilitate the efficient resolution of cross-border disputes, and that all regulations implementing a new agreement will use the draft affirmative procedure and have to comply with the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. This, he argued, will allow “parliamentary scrutiny of the international treaty itself before we seek to draw it down into domestic law by using the affirmative SI procedure.”

The Bill will now go to Committee Stage in the House of Lords, the dates for which are yet to be announced. We'll brief relevant peers again ahead of Committee Stage.

Read the transcript of the debate

3. Amendments considered to Divorce Bill

Last Tuesday, the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill reached Report Stage in the House of Lords.

Our three recommendations in relation to the Bill relate to:

  • financial orders, specifically pension sharing orders and when they should be awarded in the divorce process;
  • when notice of divorce should be deemed to be serviced; and
  • a litigation free period at the beginning, rather than the end, of proceedings

We briefed peers ahead of Report Stage and was referenced by Baroness Meyer (Conservative) in relation to our recommendation around when notice should be served. Lord Keen, the government's House of Lords Justice Spokesperson, committed to working with the Family Procedure Rules Committee on the issues around service of notice and we will aim to input into this discussion.

Third reading of the Bill will take place on 24 March.

Read the Law Society's briefing on the Bill

Read the transcript of the debate

4. Law Society speaks at APPG event on data ethics

Last Monday, Peter Wright, chair of our Policy and Regulatory Affairs Committee, joined a panel of speakers for the APPG on Data Analytics' event on the case for a data code of ethics.

His contribution focused on the challenge facing policy makers in encouraging innovation while simultaneously protecting the rights of individuals whose data is processed by tech firms and applications. He highlighted the fast changing nature of regulation of data, as well as the ethical issues posed by the "internet of things", which sees the collection of vast amounts of data by a wide range of everyday appliances.

Read the APPG's event summary

5. Use of facial recognition technology queried by Lords

Last Thursday, Lord Strasburger (Lib Dem) tabled an oral question in the House of Lords on the use of facial recognition technology, which was asked on the day by Lord Foster of Bath (Lib Dem). The question inquired into the discussions the government has had with the Metropolitan Police over its use of live facial recognition technology (FRT); whether the watchlists for deployments of this technology are composed exclusively of serious criminals; and what definition of serious criminals is being used.

In his follow up question, Lord Bath further noted that while the government claims FRT is only being used to catch ‘serious criminals’, the Metropolitan Police’s operating procedures do not mention limiting the use of FRT to ‘serious criminals’.

Responding for the government, Baroness Williams of Trafford (minister of State at the Home Office), said the Home Office has had regular discussions with the Metropolitan Police about a range of issues including facial recognition, and noted that the Metropolitan Police has published detailed information about its approach to the deployments, including on the composition of watchlists. She quoted the Metropolitan Police which has said that FRT is being used only for “those wanted for imprisonable offences, with a focus on serious crime, with a particular regard to knife and gun crime, child sexual exploitation and terrorism”.

She also revealed that missing people deemed vulnerable—a risk either to themselves or to other people—may well be the subject of LFR deployment for their own safety, but argued that the High Court has said that the police are operating within the legal framework.

Read the full exchange

Coming up this week

Next week the Coronavirus Bill will go through all its remaining stages in both Houses and become law. The Extradition (Provisional Arrest) Bill will be considered at Report Stage in the House of Lords on Monday, while the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill will return for its Third Reading in the same chamber on Tuesday.

See upcoming parliamentary business

If you made it this far

Check out our response to the government's recent Criminal Legal Aid Review.

Read about our concerns with the proposals

Take action and write to your MP

Tags: business | Westminster weekly update | Parliament

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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