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Westminster weekly update: Five things you need to know

11 February 2019

Over the next few weeks we will be trialing a new format for our weekly parliamentary report.


The new format will provide updates on the top five things you need to know on issues relating to the legal sector following the week in parliament. Detailed reports on parliamentary debates related to legal matters are still available on request.

Do let the Public Affairs team know if you have any feedback regarding the new format.

One thing you need to do

Parliament is preparing to vote on a government plan to hike probate fees from a flat fee of £215 (£155 if done by a solicitor) to up to £6,000 depending on the estate value.

This dramatic increase in fees is a stealth tax. The fee increase is disproportionate, and it is unfair to expect the bereaved to fund or subsidise other parts of the court and tribunal service, particularly in circumstances where they have no other options but to use the probate service.

Email your MP now with our quick and easy tool to raise your concerns.

Five things you need to know

1. Laspo review published

The long-awaited government post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) was published on Thursday 7 February.

The Law Society described the review as a 'shift in the right direction'. The proposals reflect a considerable number of the recommendations we put forward. 

The Ministry of Justice has accepted the case for changes in relation to the legal aid means test, exceptional case funding and early legal advice, and has committed to further work as to what those changes should look like.

There are also going to be specific changes immediately in relation to migrant children, special guardianship orders and the telephone gateway for discrimination, debt and special educational needs. 

The review promises £5m for 'innovative' forms of legal support, and an additional £3m over two years to support litigants in person. However, urgent attention must be given to amending the means test thresholds to ensure access to justice for our society's most vulnerable.

Following the publication of the review, the lord chancellor, the Rt Hon David Gauke MP, gave a statement to the House of Commons. During his statement, he confirmed that the Ministry of Justice have consulted and spoken with over 100 organisations as part of the review. 

He outlined the proposals in the review, and said the government will 'provide a breadth of support which is tailored to people which increases the ability to intervene earlier and catch their problems sooner, before they escalate.'

Responding to his statement, the shadow lord chancellor Richard Burgon MP noted the long delay to the LASPO review publication and questioned whether the report had been worth the wait. He argued that it was disappointing that some of the review's conclusions were 'more reviews'. 

He spoke about the human cost of the LASPO legal aid cuts, focusing on legal aid deserts, litigants in person and access to justice. He reiterated the call for the restoration of early legal advice, arguing that the review itself notes the strong arguments in favour.

2. Probate fees stealth tax considered by the Commons

The government has put forward plans to increase the fees charged for a grant of probate from the current flat rate of £215 (or £155 if done by a solicitor) to a sliding scale of fees rising to as much as £6,000, depending on the value of the estate.

The Law Society has raised serious concerns that the proposals being put forward in the Non-Contentious Probate (Fees) Order 2018 amount to a 'stealth tax' on grieving families, and a misuse of the Lord Chancellor's fee-raising powers. 

The proposals have been flagged by two influential parliamentary committees for being potentially ultra vires, and it is the Law Society's belief that imposing fees that have the appearance of a tax through regulations, rather than the usual legislative process, flies in the face of established constitutional principles.

The order was considered by the Delegated Legislation Committee on Thursday, and will next go to a vote in the House of Commons. The Law Society briefed parliamentarians on its concerns, and our arguments were referenced twice in Thursday's debate. 

We are asking members and the public to write to their MPs urging them to vote against this measure - you can do so too through our quick and easy online tool.

3. Brexit no deal preparations continue

Both Houses of Parliament continue to consider statutory instruments (SI) to prepare for a no deal Brexit scenario. This week, they considered SIs relating to civil judicial co-operation and mutual recognition of qualifications.

In a discussion on the draft SI on Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, the Law Society was mentioned four times including our concerns on the impact of no deal in this area. 

During the debate justice minster Lucy Frazer QC MP stressed that the government 'absolutely want to remain a signatory to the [Lugano] Convention,' and that they have spoken to the other states party to the Convention, and to the EU, whose agreement will be necessary.

In the debate on the Recognition of Professional Qualifications SI, shadow industrial strategy minister Chi Onwurah MP referenced the Law Society and the importance of 'many British professionals - lawyers who advise clients in Brussels on European Union law or work on global investigations, for example - whose job involves criss-crossing the channel.'

The Ministry of Justice have published a technical notice on family law disputes involving EU after Brexit which covers divorce, matters relating to children, child maintenance and child abduction. The Law Society have also recently published guidance ahead of a no deal scenario, including on family law.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wrote to the prime minister to set out his party's five demands for Brexit. Next week the government will table another amendable motion on Brexit and the House of Commons will vote and debate this on Thursday.

4. Justice Ministers face MPs

On Tuesday the lord chancellor and his ministerial team were quizzed by MPs in the House of Commons.

Helen Hayes MP (Labour) asked the Lord Chancellor about recent changes to court staffing and court closures and its effect on access to justice, in particular in relation to the six- to eight-month delays experienced at Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court. 

In response, justice minister Lucy Frazer QC MP referenced the government's efforts to digitise and modernise court services, including £1bn of investment.

Phillip Hollobone MP (Conservative) raised concerns about the number of cases at Northampton Crown Court which were listed on a 'floating list'. In response, justice minister Lucy Frazer QC MP noted that the listing of cases was a judicial function, although she is aware of the concerns and has recently engaged with the profession regarding their concerns, and cited her engagement with the Law Society on the issue.

Shadow lord chancellor Richard Burgon MP called on the lord chancellor to confirm that he would not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act in the aftermath of Brexit. The lord chancellor confirmed there were no plans to do so.

A number of questions were raised regarding domestic abuse and violence against women, and supporting vulnerable witnesses. Ministers argued that the Victim's Strategy, the draft Domestic Abuse Bill and the forthcoming Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy are aligned to support people through the justice system.

The ministers also faced questions regarding the LASPO review (which had not been published at the time of the session) and prisons.

5. Minister quizzed by Committee on leasehold

Housing minister Heather Wheeler MP faced questions from MPs on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on Monday.

The questions related to the Committee's ongoing inquiry into leasehold reform, which has been highlighting the issues around 'onerous' lease terms. Several questions were posed as to the role of solicitors in the alleged misselling of leasehold properties, to which the minister responded that any concerned parties should contact the SRA or the Legal Ombudsman so that they can address any issues.

Heather Wheeler MP also suggested that the government would prefer to see solutions to the issues in the leasehold sector achieved through voluntary routes, rather than by legislation.

Coming up this week

All eyes next week will be on the next key vote in the Brexit process which will take place on Thursday 14 February in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, there will be a number of key statutory instruments up for debate as part of the process of exiting the EU, including on employment rights, employment and intellectual property.

On access to justice business, the Justice Select Committee will be holding a session on 'the role of the magistracy' with Lucy Frazer QC MP on Tuesday 12 February.

In the House of Commons, there will also be a Westminster Hall debate on human rights on Wednesday 13 February, tabled by Tommy Sheppard MP (SNP), and an oral question will take place on human rights abuses in China on Monday 11 February in the House of Lords.

View all the upcoming parliamentary business

If you made it this far

Have you seen our new animation as part of our criminal justice campaign, showing Peter's nightmare journey through the criminal justice system?

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

Tags: Westminster weekly update | legal aid | 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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