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
The government is planning to increase probate fees from a flat rate of £215 (or £155 if done by a solicitor) to a sliding scale of fees rising to as much as £6,000. The Law Society is opposing the changes on the grounds that they amount to a stealth tax on the bereaved.
The proposals are set to be put to a vote in the House of Commons in the coming days.
Write to your MP to highlight your concerns using our online tool.
Five things you need to know
1. Parliament votes against a no deal and for an Article 50 extension
On Tuesday, parliament rejected the government's Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration with the EU by a reduced margin of 149 votes (in January 118 Conservative MPs voted against her deal compared to 75 this week).
On Wednesday, parliament voted to approve a motion against a no deal Brexit at any time 312 MPs voted in favour of this non-binding motion compared to 308 against. The government's original motion called for no deal to be taken off the table on 29 March but an amendment was passsed to strengthen it, stating that a no deal should be taken off the table at any time.
On Thursday, parliament voted for the government's motion to extend Article 50 by 412 - 210 votes. The motion set out the following:
- If the House approves the negotiated withdrawal agreement and framework for the future relationship by 20 March 2019, the government will seek to agree a one-off extension period specific in Article 50 up to 30 June 2019 (for the purpose of passing the necessary legislation).
- If the House does not approve the negotiated withdrawal agreement and framework for the future relationship by 20 March 2019, then it is highly likely that the European Council would require a clear purpose for any extension, not least to determine its length, and any extension beyond 30 June 2019 will require the UK to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019.
Amendments were tabled on calling for a second referendum and for MPs take control of parliamentary business but both were rejected.
Next week, parliament are expected to vote on the government's deal for the third time. Whilst the motion against leaving the EU without a deal has passed, the legal default is still that the UK leaves without a deal on 29 March. We would therefore recommend that solicitors continue to consider the impact of a no deal Brexit on their firms and clients.
Read our no deal guidance.
2. Justice ministers quizzed
The lord chancellor and his ministerial team answered questions in the House of Commons at justice oral questions.
During the session Tom Brake MP (Liberal Democrat) asked what steps the government is taking to improve access to justice in the criminal justice system, noting the Law Society's concerns on the legal aid means test and our call for the means test to be uprated in line with inflation. Responding, justice minister Lucy Frazer QC MP highlighted the important work being undertaken in the criminal justice system and noted how funding had been put into legal aid and for criminal advocates. She noted that the government are also spending money to improve courts and tribunals and they were looking to modernise the system further in the future. Frazer said that the LASPO review had been conducted but thresholds were not looked into. However, they would be undertaking a further review of the means test and the timetable was set out in the Legal Support Action Plan.
Elsewhere in the session, Gavin Newlands MP (SNP) asked about the future status of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act following Brexit. Responding, justice minister Edward Argar MP said that the UK was committed to remaining part of the ECHR, and that the UK has a long tradition of championing human rights and the government were not considering amending or repealing the Human Rights Act.
Sarah Champion MP (Labour) asked about how the government could improve the experience of victims giving evidence in court, and highlighted that adult survivors often wait decades to get compensation and face their abusers. Justice minister Edward Argar MP responded said that the government had published their recent Victims Strategy White Paper and that more needed to be done to support victims.
3. Chancellor delivers Spring Statement
The chancellor of the exchequer Phillip Hammond MP delivered his Spring Statement to parliament on Wednesday.
The chancellor used the statement to signal a warning of the impact on the economy of a no deal Brexit, and to respond to Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) figures on the strength of the UK economy. There were no major policy announcements or commitments in the statement affecting the legal sector.
The chancellor did make a number of announcements in other areas including £100m extra funding for English police authorities to tackle knife crime, additional investment in technology, research and development, and on affordable housing.
The chancellor also confirmed that the Treasury will launch a full three-year Spending Review before the summer recess, to be concluded alongside the Autumn Budget, a key opportunity for the Law Society and the wider legal sector to push for increased funding across the system.
4. The Law Society gives oral evidence on the Draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill
On Monday the Law Society gave oral evidence to the Joint Committee on the Draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill. The Bill is proposing to create a public register of the beneficial owners of overseas entities that own or purchase land in the UK in order to combat money laundering in the UK property market.
Philip Freedman - the Law Society's witness at the session - expressed the Law Society's support for the objectives of the Bill, but highlighted concerns around how the Bill would impact on unrepresented parties who are unlikely to be aware of their obligations under the proposed legislation. He also noted that there was a possible loophole in the Bill, through which overseas entities that do not wish to disclose their beneficial information could dispose of a property by selling shares in the entity itself, rather than the property.
5. Lords question standards and certifications for algorithms
On Thursday Lord Clement-Jones (Lib Dem) asked an oral question in the House of Lords on the standards and certifications required for algorithms used by public authorities and agencies. He highlighted that algorithmic decision-making was now in wide use across local authorities and police forces, and suggested that the government appoint a dedicated minister for setting standards for public sector algorithms.
The parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Lord Ashton of Hyde, responded by highlighting the government's 2018 Data Ethics Framework and the establishment of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. He noted that the Centre would publish an interim report on algorithms in the summer, including suggestions for regulation.
Coming up this week
The focus will be on Brexit, with many expecting the prime minister to hold a third vote in parliament on her Withdrawal Agreement. Whether this vote passes may determine the length of the Article 50 extension the government will request, with a short 'technical' extension likely in the case of approval and a lengthier extension if the deal is voted down again.
Tuesday will see ministers from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy take questions in parliament, while on Wednesday the president and deputy president of the Supreme Court will appear before the House of Lords Constitution Committee.
If you made it this far
Why not check out our parliamentary briefing sent out ahead of the Spring Statement?
Question or comments? Contact the Public Affairs team at firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7320 5858.