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Westminster weekly update: Online Courts Bill debated by MPs

22 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. Online Courts Bill debated by MPs

The Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill was heard at Second Reading in the House of Commons last Tuesday, as MPs were provided with their first opportunity to comment on the Bill.

During the debate, the Law Society were mentioned nine times, in particular in relation to our concerns on the court modernisation programme, and our call for the Online Procedure Rule Committee to include representation from each of the legal professions.

Opening the debate, parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice Paul Maynard MP said that our judiciary is regarded as 'among the finest in the world', and that to maintain and build on that reputation, 'it is critical that we position ourselves at the forefront of using new technology to improve the ease with which people can access justice.' He argued that the Bill would improve access to justice.

Justice Select Committee chair Bob Neill MP (Conservative) welcomed the Bill and noted the Law Society's arguments in favour of harnessing the skills and experiences of barristers, solicitors and chartered legal executives through representation on the Online Procedure Rules Committee.

Shadow justice minister Yasmin Qureshi MP (Labour) said that the adoption of new technologies in our justice system is something to welcome but cautioned that it must be done carefully to ensure that access to justice is protected. She raised concerns that the digitisation programme was being done 'simply to achieve savings.' She noted the importance of having barristers, solicitors and chartered legal executives on the Online Procedure Rule Committee. She called for greater support for the digitally excluded.

2. Domestic Abuse Bill published

Last Tuesday the Domestic Abuse Bill was published and introduced into the House of Commons.

The Bill had previously been published in draft and was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. The draft Bill was produced and published following a government consultation on 'transforming the response to domestic abuse.'

The Bill will:

  • introduce the first ever statutory government definition of domestic abuse, which will include economic abuse
  • establish a Domestic Abuse Commissioner to champion victims and survivors
  • introduce new Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders to further protect victims and place restrictions on the actions of offenders
  • prohibit the cross-examination of victims by their abusers in the family courts
  • provide automatic eligibility for special measures to support more victims to give evidence in the criminal courts

The Bill will next be heard at Second Reading in the House of Commons, which will likely take place in the Autumn.

3. MPs aim to prevent prorogation of Parliament

On the back of a successful Lords amendment earlier in the week, last Thursday MPs voted on a cross-party amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill to ensure that the Commons must sit in the lead-up to the next Brexit deadline on 31 October. The government opposed the motion, but the amendment passed by 315 to 274, a majority of 41.

The amendment means that if Parliament is prorogued when the government publishes a report on the situation in Northern Ireland, MPs must be recalled to debate them. It would also give MPs the opportunity at that point to table a neutral motion in the Commons, which they could try to use to stop a no deal Brexit.

The margin of victory was higher than expected, particularly compared to other similar votes. 17 Conservative rebels sided with the opposition, whilst senior ministers such as lord chancellor David Gauke MP and chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond MP abstained. Digital and culture minister Margot James MP resigned from the government after voting with the opposition, with her post set to be filled by the next administration.

In effect, this imposes significant barrier for a future prime minister who may wish to prorogue Parliament between 9 October and 18 December in order to force through a no deal Brexit. At the same time, a no deal Brexit remains possible, as a no deal scenario remains the legal default and there is no clear legal mechanism to stop it from happening, with a further Article 50 deadline extension requiring the agreement of all European Council members.

4. Key party figures questioned on Brexit

Cabinet office minister David Lidington MP and shadow brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer QC MP appeared in separate sessions before the Exiting the European Union Select Committee as part of the ongoing inquiry into the progress of the UK's negotiations on EU withdrawal.

The chair, Hilary Benn MP (Labour), asked about the economic impact of no deal on the UK. Lidington said that 'there would be an immediate shock to the economy… a lot then depends both on what mitigating measures are put in place here and on the direction of future policy—not just in the United Kingdom but in the European Union 27.' Lidington responded to a question on renegotiating a deal, arguing the EU Council's April decision to extend the Article 50 deadline 'includes a sentence to the effect that both the EU and the United Kingdom agree that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be reopened.' He went on to say he had heard nothing to suggest this position has changed. He was then asked how likely it is that there will be a 'proposition for a deal on the table by 31 October that is any different' from the current Withdrawal Agreement. The minister said his own view was that 'if a deal is to be done, a lot of it will resemble the deal that is on the table.'

In response to a question on the acceptability of proroguing Parliament, Starmer said that such an action would be 'completely unacceptable' and that he hoped 'it would be challenged'. He went on to say that if the House of Commons were to again vote against a no deal Brexit, that the prime minister should respect that. Answering a question on what kind of arrangement could be struck with the EU after leaving without a deal, Starmer said 'never understood the logic of saying you leave without a deal in order to get a better deal. It seems to me you leave without a deal, get complete chaos, and end up with an inferior deal if you get anything at all.' He went on to say that he could not see how 'the EU would insist on less in relation to a third party than they are insisting on for a departing friendly member.'

Sir Christopher Chope MP (Conservative) asked about 'side deals' – co-operation arrangements existing outside the framework of a withdrawal agreement. Starer argued that 'there are no negotiated deals on the side. There is not a security and counter-terrorism deal on the side. If you pull out of the arrangements, you have pulled out of the arrangements and there is nothing in place.' He referenced Eurojust as a key agency at risk in the case of no deal.

5. Criminal Cases Review Commission debated

Sandy Martin MP (Labour) held a Westminster Hall debate last Wednesday regarding the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).

During the debate, Martin noted the case of his constituent, Oliver Campbell, which he described as a 'classic example of a devastating miscarriage of justice, for the resolution of which the CCRC appears to be more of a hindrance than a help.' He said that the grounds for an appeal in the case are 'compelling', and called on the CCRC to look again at the case.

Responding, parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice Edward Argar MP said that the independent CCRC plays a vital and valuable role in maintaining confidence in the criminal justice system. He said that miscarriages of justice are 'a blight on our criminal justice system, have a devastating impact on all those involved, and can cause people to question that justice system.' He said that the CCRC is the world's first statutory, publicly funded body charged with the task of reviewing alleged miscarriages of justice. He noted that in February the Ministry of Justice published a tailored review of the CCRC, which found that the current delivery model of the body is still the most appropriate.

Coming up this week

The outcome of the Conservative Party leadership election will be revealed on Tuesday, with Theresa May likely to have her final PMQs session on Wednesday before handing over to the new prime minister. Following the Queen's invitation to the new Conservative Party leader to form a government, it is widely anticipated that a full reshuffle of cabinet will take place.

In the final week before Parliament goes into its summer recess, MPs will debate the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill at Committee Stage on Tuesday and Thursday. The Home Affairs Committee will hear evidence from home secretary Sajid Javid MP today.

In the House of Lords, on Tuesday there will be a short debate on delays in processing rape cases by the Crown Prosecution Service led by Baroness Chakrabarti, while the European Union Committee will hold an evidence session with Gina Miller, John Curtice and Henry Newman.

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Tags: Westminster weekly update | Parliament | Brexit | Conservatives | courts

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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