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Westminster weekly update: Richard Miller gives evidence to the Public Accounts Committee

14 October 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

Watch Channel 4's interview with the Law Society's head of justice, Richard Miller, about the rising number of suspects being released under investigation and the implications for victims, suspects and the criminal justice system.

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Five things you need to know

1. Law Society's Richard Miller gives evidence to the Public Accounts Committee

Last Monday the Law Society’s Richard Miller gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee on HMCTS’ court reform programme.

The session follows on from a National Audit Office report looking at progress in the programme, and from a previous inquiry in 2018 that the Public Accounts Committee undertook, to which Richard also gave oral evidence on behalf of the Law Society.

The witnesses before the committee were:

  • Richard Miller, the Law Society
  • Sam Townend, the Bar Council
  • Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, Law Centres Network
  • Penelope Gibbs, Transform Justice

During the session Richard Miller welcomed progress in the digitisation of some services, but argued that some transformative parts of the modernisation programme have not been managed successfully. He noted concerns about the lack of legal advice within digital systems and the potential consequences this could have, in particular relating to criminal pleas or adverse costs orders. He said that the Law Society is far from convinced that the ambition of the programme is achievable.

Miller cited some improvements in communication about the modernisation programme. However, concerns regarding the impact on access to justice of the court closure programme remain. He cited examples of specific issues at courts across the country where there were issues of accessibility, transport to and from court, and the number of people failing to appear.

Miller raised concerns about the lack of data and transparency as part of the modernisation programme, and called on the Ministry of Justice to give further consideration to the impact of the steps already taken on access to justice and justice outcomes.

Following the session, officials from the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS are expected to appear before the Committee on 16 October 2019.

Read the transcript of the session

2. Early advice campaign raised during justice oral questions

During justice oral questions in the House of Commons last Tuesday, shadow lord chancellor Richard Burgon MP asked the lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC MP if he would agree to reinstate all legal aid funded early legal advice. Buckland replied that the government was working on a housing repossession consultation and £5m in early intervention services, and that he took a keen interest in law centres and wanted to do more to help them.

Labour MP Preet Kaur Gill asked what steps the Government is taking to ensure that ordinary people are not 'priced out' of accessing proper legal advice and representation by the civil legal aid means test. In response justice minister Wendy Morton MP said that access to legal aid was an important part of our justice system and affirmed the government’s commitment to providing access to legal aid where it is needed.

Other topics raised included court reform, the small claims track limit, the Domestic Abuse Bill and the independence of the judiciary. Speaking about reforms to courts and the small claims limit, justice minister Chris Philp MP said that there was a need to balance a reasonable approach to balancing the court system with access to justice considerations.

Replying to chair of the Justice Select Committee Bob Neill MP, the lord chancellor confirmed that "there was no place for political involvement in the appointment of judges and no question that the rulings of the courts must be observed by all."

Read the full transcript of the session

3. Parliament prorogued

Parliament was prorogued last Tuesday, marking the end of the current parliamentary session. This follows the recent attempted prorogation of parliament, which was deemed unlawful and void by the Supreme Court.

A new session of parliament will follow the State Opening of Parliament and Queen’s Speech on Monday 14 October 2019, where the government will set out its agenda for the coming session and which legislation it will look to introduce.

The following Bills have been carried over to the next session:

  • Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill [HL] 2017-19
  • Domestic Abuse Bill 2017-19
  • Sentencing (Pre-consolidation Amendments) Bill [HL] 2017-19
  • High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill 2017-19

All other business on the order paper has subsequently been dropped. This includes:

  • Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill
  • Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill
  • Motions to approve statutory instruments relating to probate fee increase

It remains open to the government to reintroduce this legislation, however these bills would be required to start from the beginning of the legislative process.

4. MPs debate judicial appointments procedure

Last Tuesday MPs held a Westminster Hall debate on the subject of the procedure for appointing judges. We were referenced three times during the proceedings, including by the mover of the debate Stuart C. McDonald MP (SNP), who quoted Law Society deputy vice president Stephanie Boyce’s comments that “an independent judiciary is fundamental to our democracy. The notion of vetting judges for their political opinions is at odds with the whole construction of British justice.”

Shadow justice minister Yasmin Qureshi MP noted that the Law Society believes the current system for appointing judges should be maintained and not replaced by a system that includes political hearings or direct elections. She also noted the issue of low solicitor representation in the judiciary, and cited some of the practical steps outlined by the Law Society to address this.

Responding for the government, justice minister Chris Philp MP told the chamber that he and the government as a whole support the position articulated by the lord chancellor that judicial appointments should be wholly independent and separate from interference by politicians of any kind, including any form of parliamentary oversight. In response to a suggestion made by Bob Neill MP, Chair of the Justice Select Committee, that the compulsory retirement age for judges be raised from 70 to 75, Chris Philp said that he expects the Government to begin a consultation on this issue “before too long.”

Read the full transcript

Watch the session back

5. Government publishes report on Brexit preparation

Last Tuesday the Cabinet Office published a Brexit readiness report, intended to inform businesses and citizens about what they need to do to prepare for Brexit on 31 October. It includes a chapter on services, with legal services having a dedicated three page section. The press release states that the government is still trying to negotiate a workable deal, but that "this will require movement from the EU."

In his oral statement to the House of Commons announcing the report, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove MP referred to "our world-leading services sector" and acknowledged that "no-deal will bring challenges."

The services chapter begins by observing: "The strength of the UK services sector reflects our global reputation and role in setting high regulatory standards, particularly in law and finance." It does not seem to cover anything that has not been addressed by previous government Brexit guidance on legal services Brexit; rather, it gathers it into a single summary document.

The chapter on citizens' rights flags that "the UK values enormously the millions of EU citizens resident in our country who make such a significant contribution to society," and says that EU citizens now living in the UK "can be absolutely certain" of their right to live, work, study, and access benefits and services via the Settled Status scheme. EU citizens have at least until December 2020 to apply. It observes that those planning to work or deliver services in the EU, even for short visits, may need to meet additional conditions around supporting documentation, work permits or visas.

Read the Brexit readiness report (PDF)

Read our no deal guidance

Coming up next week

This week will see the opening of a new session of parliament today, marked by the Queen's Speech.

Parliament will also potentially meet for a special Saturday session on 19 October. The last time parliament sat on a Saturday was for the Falklands War. Saturday is the deadline for the Benn Bill, which requires the prime minister to ask the EU for an extension of Article 50 if the government has not passed a Withdrawal Agreement, or secured parliament's approval for a no deal Brexit.

View the upcoming parliamentary business

If you made it this far

Read our vision for law and justice, which calls on the government to prioritise fixing our justice system and ensure that the legal services sector remains diverse and globally competitive.


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

Tags: Westminster weekly update | 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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