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Westminster weekly update: Prime minister appears before senior backbenchers

07 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.


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Five things you need to know

1. Law Society gives evidence on human rights and the rule of law in South America

Last Tuesday the Law Society's international human rights policy adviser Dr Marina Brilman gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee as part of its inquiry on global Britain and South America.

The session focused on human rights and the rule of law in South America, particularly in Colombia and Venezuela. The Law Society had previously provided written evidence to the Committee.

During the session Dr Brilman argued that there is a difference between what is said in public on defence of the rule of law and human rights in South America and what happens in practice. She highlighted three key concerns including threats to judicial independence in Venezuela, Colombia and Guatemala; a rise in attacks against human rights defenders including lawyers; and regional dynamics including Prosur (the Forum for the Progress and Development of South America) and the challenge to the inter-American system of human rights.

2. Lord chancellor gives evidence to the Constitution Committee

The lord chancellor appeared before the Constitution Committee last Wednesday to discuss a number of topics including access to justice, Brexit, judicial recruitment and the wider work of the Ministry of Justice.

The Law Society was referenced by name by Baroness Corston, who cited the Law Society's map of legal aid deserts in asking how people could enforce their rights in areas where there is no legal aid provision for housing cases. The lord chancellor responded by highlighting the fact that legal aid advice is available across England and Wales over the phone, and drawing attention to the pilots announced in the LASPO Review.

The Non-Contentious Probate (Fees) Order was also mentioned by Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, who reflected the Law Society's arguments that the fees are disproportionate and asked whether the lord chancellor believed they are reasonable. The lord chancellor responded that the fees were a legitimate way to fund a court system that needs support. He also noted that while the vote in Parliament on the proposals had been delayed, the Ministry is waiting for the right time to bring forward a vote.

Amongst other points of discussion, the lord chancellor expressed his support for increasing the proportion of solicitors in the judiciary, and gave his view that promoting the UK's lawtech sector is an important element in maintaining international confidence in the UK's legal profession.

3. New Courts Bill introduced to pave the way for online courts

Last Thursday the government introduced a new bill to provide for online procedures in civil and family courts in England and Wales, the First-tier Tribunal, the Upper Tribunal, employment tribunals and the Employment Appeal Tribunal. The Bill would create an Online Procedure Rule Committee to oversee and introduce these rules.

The Law Society will be briefing parliamentarians ahead of the second reading of the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill, which will take place in the House of Lords on 14 May.

4. Prime minister appears before senior backbenchers

Last Wednesday prime minister Theresa May appeared before the Liaison Committee - made up of the chairs of the Commons Select Committees - to give evidence on her work and responsibilities.

Brexit dominated the agenda, with the prime minister saying that she planned to introduce and pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill before the end of the Article 50 deadline extension period (31 October), but that she was not yet ready to publish it. If it is not passed, the government would re-examine its intention to hold a cross-departmental spending review.

When asked about the logistics of future relationship negotiations, May confirmed that the Brexit Secretary and his department would play a leading role. She said that the government's primary aim was to maintain close customs arrangements with the EU whilst ensuring the UK could pursue an independent trade policy, and added that government working groups have been established to examine specific issues relating to trade. May also reiterated her commitment to non-regression on workers' rights.

Regarding a no deal Brexit, the prime minister maintained that the government's intention was to leave with a deal. She said she was not prepared to revoke Article 50, and that a further extension period after 31 October would have to be agreed by all member states. She also said that a second referendum was not government policy.

Also discussed were climate change, economic uncertainty, and government spending.

5. BEIS secretary questioned on legal services market access

Last Tuesday the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ministerial team answered questions from MPs in the Commons chamber.

Justice Select Committee chair Bob Neill MP, who had been briefed by the Law Society, asked a question on how BEIS secretary Greg Clark MP is ensuring that commercial advantage is not lost as the UK leaves the EU, with special reference to law firms. Neill noted that UK businesses 'currently benefit greatly from the ability of UK-based law firms to advise and act for them on contractual, regulatory and intellectual property matters when they conduct business within the European Union.'

In his reply, the secretary of state referred to the legal sector as 'one of our principal sources of export earnings.' He also observed that 'the pre-eminence of law in the UK brings firms from jurisdictions around the world to do business here' and stressed his determination to ensure the UK maintains good relations with Europe. He referred to the Regulators' Pioneer Fund (through which the Solicitors Regulation Authority is receiving £700,000 to support technological innovation in legal services) as a key part of the government's investment in the sector.

Other questions covered small business, climate change, and youth entrepreneurship.

Coming up this week

On Wednesday the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) is appearing before the DCMS Committee to answer questions on the work of his department. The director of public prosecutions, Max Hill QC, will meanwhile be giving evidence to the Human Rights Committee on the subject of democracy, free speech and freedom of association.

In the House of Lords, the EU Justice Sub-Committee will take evidence from a panel of barristers on rights after Brexit on Tuesday, while on Thursday there will be an oral question on diversity in public appointments.

If you made it this far

On Wednesday the Law Society hosted the FDA’s launch of a new Manifesto for Justice.


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

Tags: Theresa May | Westminster weekly update | legal aid | human rights | 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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