Following the Queen's Speech and state opening of Parliament last week, this week focused on a number of debates in both Houses of Parliament which discussed the government's policy intentions for the next year.
The debate surrounding the referendum for the UK to leave the European Union is continuing to intensify as time marches us closer to 23 June. On Monday, the Treasury released a new economic warning report - that Brexit could push the UK economy back into recession for at least one year after leaving the EU.
Parliament goes into recess for Whitsun today until Monday 6 June, while the government has officially entered a four-week purdah until 23 June, in which all ministries, departments and agencies are forbidden to publish any information or act in any perceived way to influence the public on the EU debate. To this end, in what could be perceived as a last-ditch attempt to avert a Brexit, the Treasury strategically published a report on Thursday night, suggesting that Brexit would cause inflation to rise, eroding the value of state pension increases, costing recipients £137 a year, or indeed devaluating people's pensions pots to near worthlessness.
Monday 23 May
Nothing to report.
Tuesday 24 May
House of Commons: Ministry of Justice - human rights
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron MP tabled a question to the secretary of state for justice on the issue of the Human Rights Act, specifically whether his department plans to carry out an (a) impact and (b) equality assessment of the government's policy of replacing the Human Rights Act 1998 with a British Bill of Rights.
The justice minister for human rights, Dominic Raab MP, answered by stating that the Ministry of Justice will set out its proposals for a Bill of Rights in due course and will fully consult on their proposals.
Queen's Speech Debate - Europe, human rights and home security
Though there were no comments of significance to the Law Society during the debate, much of it focused on the upcoming EU referendum, the proposed Bill of Rights (although few new arguments) and concerns around the Counter-extremism and Safeguarding Bill. The following comments were of interest to the Society:
Bill of Rights
• Joanna Cherry MP (SNP) asked the foreign secretary whether it was 'a bit rich for British diplomats and politicians to travel the globe lecturing others on human rights' when the government wants to repeal the Human Rights and some members want to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
• Foreign secretary Philip Hammond MP (Con) stated that 'Britain is recognised as an important champion of human rights' and that Britain had a strong reputation before the Human Rights Act.
Criminal Finances Bill
• Former justice secretary Ken Clarke MP (Con) welcomed the Criminal Finances Bill and stated that he hopes it tackles both tax evasion and money laundering. He noted that 'London is still the money-laundering capital of the world' and welcomes the intention of improving the reporting of suspicious activities. He also called for the heads of institutions involved in money laundering to have a duty put on them to ensure they take positive steps to stop those working for them encouraging such activities.
Investigatory Powers Bill
• In shadow home secretary Andy Burnham's (Lab) speech, he stated that the home secretary has written to him to say that she has committed to an independent review of the operational case for the bulk powers in the Investigatory Powers Bill. She has spoken to him about the opposition concerns around the monitoring of trade union activity.
• Home secretary Theresa May responded to say that she looks forward to continuing working with the opposition on the Bill.
House of Lords: Queen's Speech Debate - Home, legal and constitutional affairs
Prisons and Courts Reform Bill
• In Lord Faulks introductory remarks, he noted that the Prisons and Courts Reform Bill will make justice more accessible to users by digitising the courts and tribunals system. He said it will make a system that is built around the people who use it and will support those who are digitally excluded. It states that it will get cases out of the courtroom so that a judge and courtroom are used only when necessary. He also said it will make sure the family courts are focused on outcomes and collaborative problem-solving approach.
• Lord Falconer also mentioned court reform and quoted the Lord Chief Justice saying that 'Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most'. He has quoted statistics about the drop in people receiving advice or assistance for social welfare issues, highlighting that 470,000 people received advice in 2009-10, and this fell by nearly 90 per cent to 53,000 in 2013-14.
• Lord Falconer went on to quote Lord Briggs stating that the courts do not provide reasonable access to justice to any but the most wealthy and the tiny minority still in receipt of legal aid. He also quotes that 'The civil courts are, by their procedure, their culture and the complexity of the law … places designed by lawyers for use by lawyers'. Lord Falconer called for the cost of going to court to reduce and the availability of legal aid to increase and refers to the Bach Commission. He also argued that technological change needs to be 'grasped rather than something to be afraid of'.
Bill of Rights
• Lord Faulks also clarified that the Bill will reflect all the rights in the European Convention, not the Human Rights Act. He stated that it is the way in which the convention has been interpreted that is the quarrel rather than the contents of the Convention.
Human Rights and armed forces
• Lord Craig of Radley (Crossbench) said he was disappointed to not see further details about legislation around the Human Rights Act or ECHR being used to gain compensation from combat situations. He noted the Bill of Rights could be the vehicle but was disappointed that this practice was not being prevented. He raised concerns that the work of the 'Iraq historic allegations team is set to continue with a plethora of claims, with no help from Parliament'.
• In response to these points, home office minister Lord Bridges of Headley (Con) confirmed that the government is 'acutely aware' of these issues and is actively considering the best way forward.
Wednesday 25 May
Nothing to report.
Thursday 26 May
House of Commons: Questions to the Attorney General - Legal aid, public legal education and pro bono
The Law Society was referenced by Dr James Davies MP (Conservative, Vale of Clwyd) with regards to its support of Law Works, public legal education and pro bono. Responding, solicitor general Robert Buckland MP welcomed the work of Law Works and said that it had supported efforts to support litigants in person in particular.
The following MPs tabled the same written question to the Attorney General:
What recent steps he has taken to promote (a) public legal education and (b) the provision of pro bono legal services
- Bob Blackman MP
- Maggie Throup MP
- Mims Davies MP
- Michael Tomlinson MP
- Dr James Davies MP
In response, Mr Buckland stated that a number of projects had been supported and praised all those who take part in pro bono. Following this, Mr Blackman further praised lawyers for their pro bono work and said that thousands achieved justice this way. In reply, the solicitor general said lawyers recognised that their efforts made a difference.
Other oral points made following this included:
• Conservative MP Maggie Throup noted the financial pressures on small charities and asked about work to ensure that law firms offered them pro bono services. The solicitor general noted the existing pro bono commitments and paid tribute to this work.
• Conservative MP Mims Davies asked whether the government believed that the public legal understanding had 'caught up' with definitions of sexting and pornography. Responding, the solicitor general noted the value of public legal education.
• Conservative MP Michael Tomlinson asked how pro bono legal work could be brought into schools. Responding, the solicitor general told Mr Tomlinson that he should engage with local law firms to promote public legal education from a young age.
• Conservative MP James Davies highlighted the Law Works initiative, supported by the Law Society, which he said helped the most needy in society. In response, the solicitor general welcomed Law Works and said that it had supported efforts to support litigants in person in particular.
• Labour MP Rob Marris said pro bono was often a poor substitute in situations where there were cuts to legal aid. He suggested that interests on client accounts should be used to fund legal aid. The solicitor general said the Ministry of Justice could examine this. However, he emphasised the value of the voluntary nature of pro bono work. Further, he chastised the Labour party's record in this area, in particular, the Access to Justice Act 1999 which slashed legal aid under Tony Blair's New Labour government.
• Labour MP Nick Thomas-Symonds said that he supported pro bono work but asked for agreement that it should not be considered a policy solution to cuts to legal aid, as it was a voluntary service. Responding, the solicitor general said that the government did not advocate that pro bono work should be a substitute for legal aid.
• Labour MP David Hanson said that pro bono legal assistance could be 'no substitute for access to justice'. He asked how many hours of pro bono support were available in each geographical area. Responding, the solicitor general argued that it would detract from pro bono work to 'pretend' that it functioned as a substitute for legal aid.
• Shadow attorney general Karl Turner praised the work of law centres, the Citizens Advice Bureau and others offering legal advice. However, individuals and organisations could not possibly fill the gap left by LASPO, he said, and urged ministers to bring forward a review of the Act. In response, the solicitor general said while it was right to celebrate pro bono work and legal education, Britain still had one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world.
Friday 27 May
Public Accounts Committee - Efficiency in the Criminal Justice System
The Public Accounts Committee has today published its first report on efficiency in the criminal justice system. In summary, the report states:
The criminal justice system is close to breaking point. Lack of shared accountability and resource pressures mean that costs are being shunted from one part of the system to another and the system suffers from too many delays and inefficiencies. There is insufficient focus on victims, who face a postcode lottery in their access to justice due to the significant variations in performance in different areas of the country. The system is already overstretched and we consider that the Ministry of Justice has exhausted the scope to make more cuts without further detriment to performance. The government is implementing reforms to improve the system but we are concerned that users of the system won’t see the full benefit for another four years. There are opportunities for the Ministry to make improvements before then, including better sharing of good practice and making sure that everyone is getting things right first time.