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Westminster weekly update: Legal aid deserts covered in PMQs

15 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. Prime minister challenged on access to justice

Legal aid deserts were mentioned at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, as the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn focused his questions to the prime minister around access to justice. The Law Society has been running a campaign on legal aid deserts.

During the session, leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn noted the prime minister’s remarks from when she took office regarding "burning injustices", and asked whether she agreed that access to justice is vital in tackling these injustices.

He noted the 70th anniversary of the introduction of legal aid and criticised cuts to legal aid in 2013 by the Coalition Government. He said the number of law centres and not-for-profit legal aid providers has more than halved and that there are legal aid deserts across the country.

He asked whether this has helped or hindered the fight against burning injustices, and said that Labour is committed to restoring legal aid funding for family law, housing, benefit appeals, judicial review preparation, inquests, and real action on immigration cases.

The Prime Minister responded by saying that there are many burning injustices, highlighting the Race Disparity Audit which looks at public services and has led to action to ensure that everybody will have access to the public services that they need.

She said that the whole question of burning injustices is not just about access to the legal system, and said that the Ministry of Justice spends a quarter of its budget on legal aid, amounting to £1.6bn last year.

She said they are committed to ensuring people can access the help they need into the future, and they have published a plan for legal support and are conducting a fundamental review of criminal legal aid fees.

2. Ministry of Justice quizzed by MPs

The justice ministerial team faced questions in the House of Commons on Tuesday, and the session contained several references to our legal aid deserts campaign and around early legal advice.

Sandy Martin MP (Labour) asked about legal advice deserts, noting that the East of England is the region with the highest percentage of the population living in a legal aid desert, and that his constituency in Ipswich is at the centre of a housing legal aid desert. He asked for a meeting with the minister and Suffolk Law Centre to discuss the issue.

Responding, parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice, Paul Maynard MP said that following the recent legal aid tender, the number of offices providing legal aid services in housing and debt has risen by 7%, and that the Legal Aid Agency reviews access to services on a regular basis.

He noted that a contract was awarded for his constituency, but the provider has not yet advised that they have recruited staff to provide advice. They will shortly be looking to retender the service in Martin's constituency.

Shadow lord chancellor Richard Burgon MP (Labour) noted the 70th anniversary of the introduction of legal aid this month and criticised recent cuts to legal aid. He said that Labour have committed to restoring legal aid for all family law, housing law, benefit appeals, immigration cases and inquests. He called on the government to restore legal aid in these areas.

Responding, Maynard said that the government is currently reviewing the legal aid means test thresholds, reviewing exceptional case funding, and bringing special guardianship orders back into scope.

The session also included questions on the risk of a no-deal Brexit, court reform and modernisation, the probate service, divorce and legal aid inquests.

On Tuesday morning lord chancellor David Gauke MP, appeared before the Justice Select Committee to give evidence alongside the CEO of HMCTS, Susan Acland-Hood, and Richard Goodman, change director at HMCTS.

During the session, the lord chancellor argued that while the programme has had its criticisms he has welcomed the scrutiny of it. He said that the programme has already achieved a lot, and defended the delays in implementing parts of the programme by arguing that they were necessary to get it right.

He said they are working with the advice sector to improve signposting to ensure people have access to early legal advice. The chair of the committee, Bob Neill MP, raised concerns about 15-minute slots for advising clients in criminal courts.

Acland-Hood said there is no set amount of time and practice varies. The lord chancellor said that they have a responsibility to the taxpayer to ensure that court usage is monitored.

Acland-Hood defended the amount of money raised through the sale of closed court buildings. She said where courts are closed and sold, she wants it to go for the maximum amount to allow further investment in the court reform programme.

The panel spoke about how they will evaluate the project, which will include an interim report in 2021 and a further report a couple of years after that. They said that other forms of evaluation are constantly ongoing.

The committee also heard separately from senior members of the judiciary, including the Right Hon Lord Burnett of Maldon (the lord chief justice), Sir Terence Etherton (The master of the rolls), and Sir Ernest Ryder (the senior president of tribunals).

4. Leasehold reform debated in parliament

Thursday saw a motion on leasehold reform debated in the House of Commons. The debate, which was tabled by chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Committee Clive Betts MP, focused around the committee’s report on leasehold reform and the government’s response to the report, which was published last week.

A number of MPs highlighted concerns around the relationships between conveyancing solicitors and developers, and some cited allegations by their constituents that they had not been properly advised on lease terms by their solicitor.

The Labour Party published its own leasehold strategy on Tuesday, and shadow housing minister Sarah Jones MP outlined some of its key proposals during the debate. These include proposals to:

  • end the sale of new leasehold houses immediately, and to end the sale of flats as leasehold by the end of the first term of a Labour government
  • cap ground rents on future leases at zero financial value, and legislate to cap ground rents in existing leases at the lower of 1% of the value of the property or £250 per annum
  • give new rights to allow leaseholders to hire and fire their own managing agents or take over the management of their homes themselves

Responding on behalf of the government, housing minister Heather Wheeler MP argued that the government has accepted many of the HCLG Committee’s recommendations, including to ban the sale of new houses as leasehold and a cap on ground rents for future leases set at zero financial value. She highlighted that attempting to cap ground rents in existing leases could create issues under human rights legislation.

5. Labour Party set out further detail on Brexit position while amendments aimed at stopping no-deal Brexit are voted on

In a communication to all Labour Party members earlier this week, leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn MP argued that any Brexit deal negotiated by a Conservative government should be put back to the people in a public vote, as should any decision to leave without a deal.

He made clear that in either of these situations Labour would campaign to remain in the EU, an important development in the party’s position.

This comes after a decision by Labour’s affiliated trade unions, including the three largest in the UK (Unite, Unison and GMB), to agree a new joint Brexit position. The new Labour Party policy represents the first half of the trade union position – that a deal negotiated by a Conservative government should be put to a referendum in which Labour should support remaining in the EU.

It is possible that the second half of the policy – that a Brexit deal negotiated by a Labour government should also be put to referendum and that the party should then decide whether to campaign for the deal or for remaining – could well be passed at the Labour Party conference in the autumn.

On Tuesday, Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve MP tabled several amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill aimed at preventing a new prime minister from proroguing Parliament and thereby forcing a no-deal exit by placing reporting responsibilities on the government. While one amendment was not selected for debate by the speaker’s office, and a second was narrowly defeated by the government, a further two passed.

One, bringing forward the date the Northern Ireland secretary first has to report on the ongoing issues with forming an executive in Stormont, the devolved Assembly of Northern Ireland, to early September, was adopted by government and passed without vote.

The other which requires the secretary of state to make a further report every 14 days from 9 October until 18 December, or an executive is formed, passed by a single vote, with the government opposing. It is unclear as of yet whether these are enforceable or whether the act of prorogation would take precedence over them.

Coming up next week

The Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill will have its first opportunity to be debated by MPs on Tuesday, having already completed passage through the House of Lords.

Meanwhile, ministers for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will face questions in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the International Trade Committee will hold an oral evidence session with trade minister George Hollingbery MP as part of its inquiry into trade in services, and the European Scrutiny Committee will hold a session on post-Brexit scrutiny of EU law and policy with secretary of state for exiting the EU, Stephen Barclay MP.

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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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