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Westminster weekly update: MPs debate legal aid for inquests

15 April 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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Five things you need to know

1. Brexit day delayed again

In the small hours of last Thursday morning the European Council announced they had agreed to grant a six-and-a-half month extension to the Article 50 deadline, with the new cut off point set at 31 October.

The prime minister had originally requested a shorter extension to 30 June, while other leaders (including council president Donald Tusk) favoured a longer one of up to a year. President of France Emmanuel Macron reportedly favoured a short extension and was a key force behind the six-and-a-half month compromise, saying a long extension is 'neither good for us nor for the British people'.

As it stands, the UK will be able to leave early if an agreed Brexit deal were to be ratified by Parliament before 31 October. The EU has reiterated its position on the withdrawal agreement - that it will not be reopened - and has stressed that the extension is contingent on UK's participation in the European Parliament elections on 23 May. If this is not done the UK will be forced to leave without a deal on 1 June.

The Easter recess is now able to take place, with both Houses having risen yesterday afternoon and sitting again on Tuesday 23 April. Theresa May has announced cross-party talks with Labour in search of a Brexit compromise will continue, but if they do not bear fruit then Brexit options will be put to MPs in a series of indicative votes.

2. MPs debate legal aid for inquests

Last Wednesday a Westminster Hall debate on legal aid for inquests was held.

The Law Society was mentioned twice during the debate by Tim Loughton MP (Conservative), who noted the Law Society's view that bereaved families should have access to legal representation where possible. He also acknowledged that the Law Society challenges how far a bereaved family can be expected to engage effectively with a legal process that relates to the death of a loved one.

During the debate many MPs argued that an inequality of arms exists at inquests for bereaved families in cases where the state is involved. Stephanie Peacock MP (Labour) called for a level playing field for bereaved families. Marie Rimmer MP (Labour) noted the financial eligibility rules for receiving legal aid.

Victoria Prentis MP (Conservative) noted her professional career and experience at inquests. She said she knows the impact and full horror of the inquest process for families, and that it can be a negative experience for those involved. She said that more support is needed for families.

Shadow justice minister Gloria de Piero MP said that a Labour government would commit to providing proper legal support to those who have been the victims of deaths in custody, with legal aid for representation at inquests.

Parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice Lucy Frazer QC MP noted that she had recently visited Westminster coroner's court to watch an inquest and commended the professionalism of those involved and the importance of the inquest process to the bereaved family. She said that the government are in the process of revising the information they give families on coronial processes, to ensure it is tailored to them. She said that the government have agreed to backdate the legal help waiver, and they are reviewing the legal aid means test.

3. Attorney General questioned

Last Thursday the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox QC MP, and the solicitor general, Robert Buckland QC MP, faced questions in the House of Commons.

During the session, Theresa Villiers MP (Conservative) asked about how the criminal justice system collects smartphone data and encouraged better analysis of that data to prevent the collapse of trials. In response, the solicitor general said that the attorney general has published a new report on disclosure, and he will be chairing a tech summit in June to deal with how we can make artificial intelligence work to help with the challenge of trawling through data.

Sir Desmond Swayne MP (Conservative) asked about the effect of social media on the administration of justice. The solicitor general responded by noting the government's response to the call for evidence on the impact of social media on the administration of justice, which concluded that it is not have a widespread impact on the trial process but that it may in the future if the issues identified are not addressed. The government are responding by publishing new information to support the public in understanding how they can responsibly comment on criminal trials on social media.

The attorney general responded to a question by Alison Thewliss MP (SNP) that non-regression from current EU rights, keeping pace with future EU rights developments and continuing to demonstrate leadership in human rights are vital principles for the UK following Brexit.

4. Housing debated in the House of Commons

Last Tuesday the House of Commons held a general debate on housing. While most of the debate focused on issues around housing supply, leasehold was also touched on by some MPs.

Speaking on behalf of the government, housing minister Kit Malthouse MP highlighted that the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government had unveiled an industry pledge, signed by more than 40 leading developers, to end onerous lease terms including doubling ground rents. He also noted that the government is bringing forward legislation to require developers to belong to a new homes ombudsman to ensure that consumers' problems are resolved faster and more effectively. The government will be consulting on these proposals soon.

Sharon Hodgson MP (Labour) highlighted some of the issues reported by leaseholders in her constituency, and called on the government to consider the recommendations of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee's report on leasehold reform, and specifically consider an investigation into mis-selling of leases.

Justin Madders MP (Labour) meanwhile drew attention to the issue of 'fleecehold', and suggested that the government should pursue changes in the law to address examples of poor behaviour by developers. Summing up for the opposition, shadow housing minister Sarah Jones MP stated that MPs were 'absolutely right to talk about the overwhelming sense of injustice felt by leaseholders'.

5. Lords consider the attractiveness of the UK for technology firms

Last Wednesday Lord Holmes of Richmond (Conservative) asked an oral question in the House of Lords on 'what steps [the government] are taking to ensure the attraction of the United Kingdom as a place to establish and scale businesses based on artificial intelligence, FinTech and distributed ledger technology.'

In response to Lord Holmes' question, Lord Henley - parliamentary under-secretary of state at the department for business, energy and industrial strategy - said that inward investment to the UK AI sector had increased by 17% in 2018, and noted that the government have launched the AI sector deal, which is worth around £1 billion to the sector.

Lord Grantchester (Labour) pointed out that a PwC report in 2017 highlighted that AI and wider automation could result in up to 30% of UK jobs being dispensable. He asked the minister what steps the government is taking to ensure all workers benefit from new technologies, and that AI does not simply lead to mass redundancies.

In response, Lord Henley said that the report also noted that advances in that sector could lead to growth of £230 billion between now and 2030. He also noted that the report stated that AI would likely lead to the creation of a large number of new jobs which would be more highly paid and highly skilled than existing jobs.

Coming up this week

Parliament is on recess next week for Easter. It will next sit on Tuesday 23 April.

If you made it this far

We're holding an International Symposium on the transformational power of gender equality in business on 20 & 21 June, and you can promote it on social media.

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

Tags: Westminster weekly update | legal aid | Parliament | Brexit

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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