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Westminster weekly update: Online Courts Bill debated for the first time

20 May 2019

Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.


Five things you need to know

1. Online Courts Bill debated for the first time

Last Tuesday the House of Lords held its Second Reading of the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill, and the Law Society were mentioned four times during the debate.

Introducing the Bill, lords justice minister and advocate-general for Scotland Lord Keen of Elie noted the government committed in its manifesto to modernising the courts and tribunals system. The Bill would create an Online Procedure Rules Committee (OPRC) which will be responsible for making new court and tribunal rules to enable online court procedures. He argued that the Bill, in combination with their wider package of reforms, will ensure that our courts and tribunals system remains fit for the 21st century.

Labour shadow justice minister Lord Beecham responded by calling for greater detail on how the lord chancellor would use powers to amend, repeal or revoke legislation related to online procedure rules, and noted the Law Society's questioning of the meaning of 'the use of innovative methods of resolving disputes' as outlined in the Bill.

Liberal Democrat shadow justice minister Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames welcomed the government's commitment to implement the recommendations of the 2016 review of civil court structures by lord justice Briggs. He argued that the Bill's success will be measured by the degree to which it improves access to justice and raised concerns about digital exclusion. He noted concerns about 'Henry VIII' powers and called for a statutory commitment to a post-legislative review of how the implementation of online procedures is working.

Other contributions to the debate raised concerns about access to justice, digital exclusion and what would happen if one party wanted to proceed online, and the other party did not.

The Law Society set out three key recommendations ahead of the debate, including a right to choose between whether to proceed online or not, a balanced OPRC including members from all branches of the legal profession, and calling for appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of new online rules when introduced in regulations.

2. Law Society raised by MPs in Brexit questions

Last Thursday ministers from the Department for Exiting the European Union answered questions from MPs in the Commons chamber.

Opposition whip and Justice Select Committee member Bambos Charalambous MP asked what steps the government is taking to ensure the UK's future relationship with the EU enables continued trade in legal services. In answer, Brexit minister Robin Walker MP referenced the UK's status as 'a world leader in legal services' and English law's 'reputation for excellence across the world.' He said the political declaration outlines the EU and government's commitment to 'ambitious' arrangements for services which 'go well beyond World Trade Organisation agreements' and existing EU free trade agreements. In his supplementary question, Charalambous asked the following:

'Legal services in the UK are a success story. The sector makes a significant contribution to the UK economy each year - the Law Society estimates £25.7 billion, £4.4 billion in net exports and 370,000 jobs - and this relies, in part, on uniform market access across the EU and EEA. Will the minister work with representatives from the legal sector to ensure this is maintained by the UK-EU future relationship?'

Walker responded by praising Charalambous' actions on the Justice Select Committee and agreed that the legal sector is important to the UK economy. He recognised that the EU is committed to the position that the four freedoms of the single market are indivisible, and that as such the government is not seeking single market membership. Instead, he said, the government is seeking 'ambitious arrangements for services and investment that build on recent EU free trade agreements, and is working closely with colleagues from the Ministry of Justice, and engaging with industry stakeholders - including the Law Society - to achieve a deal that works for UK legal services sector both in terms of market access and in terms of civil judicial co-operation.'

Also discussed were the settled status scheme available to EU citizens, security co-operation, and the effect of Brexit on the environment.

3. Justice Committee chair writes to the lord chancellor regarding legal aid

The Justice Select Committee has published a letter from its chair, Bob Neill MP, to the lord chancellor following his evidence to the committee on the LASPO post-implementation review.

In the letter he raises 4 points:

  • Sustainability of the legal aid market - He noted the committee's concerns on the sustainability of the legal aid market and refers the lord chancellor to the Law Society's housing legal aid deserts heat map and called for urgent steps to remedy the unacceptable shortfall in specialist provision.
  • Spending review - He noted that the committee were pleased to support the lord chancellor's intention to highlight to the Treasury the need for additional expenditure and the evidence gathering taking place under the Legal Support Action Plan.
  • Problem clusters - He noted that the committee hope that the Legal Support Action Plan will build on the important findings of existing research so that the piloted approach, and evaluation of the pilots in early advice social welfare law, can be completed in a manner that gives the greatest chance of success.
  • Inquests - He noted concerns regarding the inequality of arms in representation at inquests due to the unavailability of legal aid. He highlighted the discrepancy in the amount spent by the MoJ at inquests related to prisons against how much legal aid was available for bereaved families.

4. Brexit secretary appears before Lords EU Committee

Secretary of state for exiting the European Union Steve Barclay MP appeared before the Lords European Union Committee last Wednesday, giving evidence on Brexit negotiations.

He warned that the current Brexit deal will be 'dead' if Labour's backing cannot be secured and MPs do not vote for it next month. This comes shortly after it was announced by Downing Street that that Withdrawal Agreement Bill - the legislative vehicle through which the negotiated Brexit deal would be implemented - will be introduced into the House of Commons in the week beginning 3 June.

Cross party talks between the government and Labour failed to produce an agreement, with leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn MP announcing an end to the talks in a letter to the prime minister on Friday. It is expected that the prime minister will press on with the Withdrawal Bill nonetheless.

Barclay's colleague, international trade secretary Liam Fox, earlier this week warned Conservative colleagues that voting down the Withdrawal Agreement Bill would be setting the UK on a path to either 'revocation of Article 50 or leaving without a deal.'

5. Business minister discusses automation

Last Wednesday the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee took evidence from Andrew Stephenson MP, minister for business and industry, as part of its inquiry into automation and the future of work.

Stephenson expressed optimism about the potential of automation. Jobs would change, he conceded, but argued that the jobs created by automation would outnumber job losses. He said 'dirty, dangerous and dull' jobs would be replaced, and that the end result would be better productivity and higher profits, which would improve the workplace and give workers better opportunities.

On the subject of retraining workers, Stephenson said that businesses would be best placed to retrain their workers, but the government is nonetheless consulting on a National Retraining Scheme.

Artificial intelligence was raised specifically during the session, and Stephenson said that some sectors would benefit more from AI than others. He noted that the government would look to identify the unique opportunities to take advantage of AI technology in different sectors.

Coming up this week

On Tuesday the Law Society's Head of Justice, Richard Miller, will be giving oral evidence to the Justice Committee on the ongoing reforms to the courts and tribunals service.

Attorney General questions will take place on Thursday, featuring the newly appointed solicitor general Lucy Frazer QC MP.

And beyond Westminster, Thursday 23 May is polling day for elections to the European Parliament. The results are expected to be announced on Sunday 26 May.

If you made it this far

Check out our new housing legal aid deserts campaign and updated heat map.


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

Tags: Law Society | Westminster weekly update | 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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