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Westminster weekly update: MPs show their support for legal aid deserts campaign

24 June 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

he Law Society has recently unveiled the report of its Technology and the Law Policy Commission, which has conducted a year-long investigation into the use of algorithms in the criminal justice system.

Five things you need to know

1. MPs show their support for legal aid deserts campaign

Last week 29 MPs from across Parliament showed support for our legal aid deserts campaign.

The campaign highlights that provision of legal aid advice for housing is disappearing in large areas of England and Wales, creating legal aid deserts.

Attending our parliamentary drop-in event on the issue, supporters included:

  • Shadow lord chancellor Richard Burgon MP
  • Shadow solicitor general, Nick Thomas Symonds MP
  • Shadow local government secretary Andrew Gwynne MP
  • Justice Committee member Bambos Charalambous MP
  • Justice Committee member Andy Slaughter MP

The event was an opportunity for MPs of all political parties to learn more about our housing legal aid deserts campaign and how it affects their constituency. Many MPs took part in a photo opportunity at the event.

2. Boris Johnson v Jeremy Hunt in race for Number 10

The final two candidates in the Conservative Party leadership election has been announced, and Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt will now progress to a postal ballot of Conservative Party members. We expect the result of the ballot to be announced on the week commencing 22 July.

This follows the elimination of Rory Stewart last Wednesday evening, followed by the elimination of Sajid Javid last Thursday morning and Michael Gove last Thursday evening.

3. Gender equality in the law discussed at international event

The Law Society's Women in Leadership in Law Symposium took place last Thursday and Friday, with over 300 people in attendance.

The two-day conference was designed to bring together professionals from across the legal profession and other sectors to identify steps needed to achieve gender equality in the workplace, crucial to boost growth, innovation and productivity.

It also marks the centenary of women being allowed to practice law in the UK and celebrates the successes of women in law globally.

During the event, Law Society president Christina Blacklaws launched the Women in Law Pledge, and urged firms and organisations to become signatories. The pledge was developed with the Bar Council and CILEx and is supported by the Ministry of Justice.

The lord chancellor the Rt Hon David Gauke MP gave the keynote speech and praised the Law Society's work on gender equality.

A panel session also took place with women lawyer parliamentarians featuring shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti, Baroness Mary Goudie, Dame Eleanor Laing MP and Nicky Morgan MP. The panellists spoke about their experiences in law and how to tackle gender inequality across the profession.

4. Court closures and access to justice debated by MPs

MPs debated court closures and access to justice in the House of Commons last Thursday. The Law Society were mentioned six times during the debate.

Opening the debate, Bambos Charalambous MP (Labour) described the court closure programme as 'disjointed and fragmented'. He argued that the court closure programme takes no account of the impact on disadvantaged people and people on low incomes. He noted the cost of travel for individuals trying to get to their nearest court following closures, and spoke about digital exclusion of court users. He argued that court closures and cuts to legal aid have combined to made it harder for the most disadvantaged to access justice.

Chair of the Justice Select Committee Bob Neill MP (Conservative) spoke about the right to access justice and the need for the government to produce a system that achieves that without unreasonable obstacles. He noted that the recent court closure programme may have focused more on costs and savings rather than on improving services for court users. He spoke about the difficulty facing rural parts of the jurisdiction in finding magistrates, and the difficulty of professionals travelling long distances to get to court. He highlighted that poor maintenance was an issue across the court estate.

Shadow lord chancellor Richard Burgon MP (Labour) called for greater parliamentary oversight of the £1 billion reform programme. He noted wider cuts to the justice system and the Law Society's concerns about travel to courts. He said that he is concerned that the reforms are being rushed through regardless of the consequences, and that technology is being used as a smokescreen for cuts. He called for a moratorium on further court closures and further cuts until the impact has been assessed.

Parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice Paul Maynard MP said that the ability to access justice is a fundamental right in our society. He argued that the government's £1bn modernisation programme is ambitious and will create a system that works better for those who need it. He said none of their plans replace the need for traditional courts or for people to travel to those buildings. He recognised that there are challenges in the court estate. He spoke about investment in courts maintenance, funded by an additional £15m from the Treasury.

5. MPs debate the Modern Slavery Act review

Last Wednesday saw MPs debate the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act in Westminster Hall.

Opening the debate, Frank Field MP (Independent) described the 2015 Modern Slavery Act as a breakthrough and that there have been successes from it. He noted that he had been asked to conduct an independent review, and that four themes were looked at as part of the review including the anti-slavery commissioner, giving greater importance to supply chains, the role of advocates for children involved in trafficking and the legal working of the Act. He noted that there were 80 recommendations from the report in total but focused on a couple. He argued that it is appalling that we collect no data on what happens to those who enter the national referral mechanism for safety once that period of safety ends. He also argued that the Home Office's modern slavery unit should actually go to the Cabinet Office.

In response to the debate, parliamentary under-secretary of state for the Home Department Victoria Atkins MP said that the government are committed to the eradication of modern slavery in the UK and overseas. She described the UK's legislation as among the best in the world in this area, but that the government always seeks to improve. She said the government are considering all the recommendations of the final report very carefully and that they hope to respond to them formally before the summer recess.

Coming up this week

While the Conservative leadership rivals take part in regional hustings, business will continue in Parliament.

Today will see Report Stage of the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill in the House of Lords, whereas Tuesday brings the Second Reading of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill in the House of Commons.

Law Society head of international Mickael Laurans will be giving evidence the International Trade Committee on Wednesday regarding trade in services.

Meanwhile the Justice Select Committee will continue its inquiry into court reform on Tuesday, with evidence from JUSTICE, Transform Justice, Law for Life and Professor Richard Susskind.

If you made it this far

We have published the findings of the international women in law roundtables in a new report.


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

Tags: Westminster weekly update | legal aid | 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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