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Gove shows he is not wedded to the past

04 December 2015

Richard Messingham provides an overview of the activity around the Syria debate and the lord chancellor's announcements this week. 

While this week was book ended by the announcement on legal services regulation on Monday and the reversal of the criminal court charge on Thursday, it has been dominated by Wednesday's vote in the Commons on whether the UK should join an international coalition to widen air strikes on ISIL/Daesh into Syria. The vote was preceded by a 11-hour debate in which over 100 MPs from all parties gave their view on whether we should extend our air strikes, concluding with the government securing a 179 majority in favour of the government's motion.

The lord chancellor has shown his willingness to think again by announcing an end to the criminal courts charge, while at the same time paying tribute to the legal sector, by saying in a speech to the Magistrates Association that he is '... a great admirer of our country's legal professionals. Whether solicitors or barristers, judges sitting in courts or tribunals...' His decision to end the criminal court charge also showed that he has little problem in being wedded to the plans of his predecessor and the delay in the publication of the Bill of Rights in early 2016 suggests that he might be focused on getting things right first time round.

Monday 30 November

Government: legal services regulation

The chancellor of the exchequer and secretary of state for business, innovation and skills announced plans to review the regulation of legal services (PDF) in an attempt to reduce barriers for alternative business structures to offer legal services such as conveyancing, probate and litigation. The government will launch a consultation in spring 2016 which will also included plans to make legal service regulators independent from their representatives. The move came as part of move to bring down bills for families and firms by boosting competition.

Read the Society's response to the announcement

Other organisations responded:

  • The Solicitors Regulation Authority stated the announcement on ABS licensing is "positive progress" and noted that they have been working with the LSB and other regulators to look at amendments to the Legal Services Act. They noted that it is in the "public interest that regulation is independent of the profession" and welcome the opportunity to discuss the proposal in the spring.
  • The Bar Standards Board "welcomes a debate on the complete separation of the regulatory and representative functions". It notes that it is in the public interest and could allow both regulatory and representatives bodies to be stronger in their respective roles.
  • The Legal Standards Board welcomed the announcement and believes the proposals will "lighten burdens on business and streamline regulatory processes" in the interest of consumers, noting that the lack of independent between regulators and representative bodies is slowing reforms. The LSB also highlighted that it has worked with eight other regulators earlier in the year to submit proposals to ministers.
  •  CILEx welcomed the plans to make it easier for new market entrants and looks forward to participating in early discussions with the government. It argues that enabling "innovative and competitive legal services market is in the best interest of consumers". On regulation it notes that approved regulators, like CILEx, uphold the highest standards and its "frontline regulators enforce those standards independently".
  • The Council of Licensed Conveyancers welcomed the HM Treasury announcement as a "good modernising measure" and argues previous fears around the erosion of ethical standards around the time of the Legal Services Act were unfounded. It noted that ABS firms are finding new ways to deliver high quality services. It also welcomes the consultation on making regulators independent of representative bodies as something it has pushed for a long time, as it believes this will bring improvements for consumers and those running legal services businesses.


House of Commons: written answers: immigration appeals

In response to a question by David Davies MP (Con), justice minister Shailesh Vara MP noted that the Ministry of Justice cannot separately report on the amount of legal aid specifically to asylum seekers.

House of Lords: Enterprise Bill

The Bill will continue at the Third Reading where the Lords will be able to make further amendments.

Read more about the Bill

Tuesday 1 December

House of Commons: Housing and Planning Bill

The Bill was scrutinised by the Public Bill Committee and returned to the committee on Thursday 3 December.

Read more about the Bill

Immigration Bill

The Bill has now passed Third Reading and will begin its passage through the House of Lords where peers will have the opportunity to examine and make amendments.

Find out more about the Bill 

Debate: Westminster Hall debate on the effect of the introduction of fees for employment tribunals

Labour MP, and former employment solicitor, Justin Madders secured debate an hour and half debate on the effect of the introduction of fees for employment tribunals. Both shadow justice minister Karl Turner and Justin Madders set out similar concerns on the tribunal fees including the huge reduction in claims, the problems with the remission system, the vexatious claims argument being undermined by the lack of change in the success rate and that the policy had not met its aim of significantly contributing to the cost of the tribunals.

In his response, justice minister Shailesh Vara did refuse to confirm that the review into the fees had the scope to abolish them although, despite Labour and SNP MPs questioning him on a number of occasions. He reiterated that the review would look at whether the introduction had achieved its three objects, namely to help pay for the costs of the system, change behaviours (specifically around the use of conciliation) and maintain access to justice.

Karl Turner criticised the system for remissions for the lack of public awareness, its complexity and the lack of legal help to navigate it. In response the minister stated that civil servants were specifically looking into how the process for applications can be made simpler and more user friendly.

Vara went on to say that the review will look into the fall in claims after the fees were introduced but said that the use of conciliation and the improvement of the economy are likely to be factors.

Other relevant comments in the debate included:

Labour MP Jo Stevens specifically pressed the minister on the lack of co-operation of government departments in using the conciliation service ACAS and the minister noted he would look into this.

A number of MPs, including Ian Lavery and Ruth Cadbury, highlighted the impact of the tribunal on women, particularly in pregnancy discrimination and equal pay, respectively.

Written Answers: Immigration appeals

In response to a question by David Davies MP (Con), justice minister Shailesh Vara MP (Con) noted that the Ministry of Justice cannot separately report on the amount of legal aid specifically to asylum seekers. 

Written Answers: Employment Tribunals Service: pregnant women 

In response to a question by Julian Sturdy MP (Con), justice minister Shailesh Vara MP (Con) reiterated the announcement of a post-implementation review of the introduction of fees in employment tribunals and will consider the impact of fees on protected characteristics such as pregnancy.

House of Lords: European Union Referendum Bill

The Bill has now reached the finished its passage in the House of Lords and will return to the House of Commons for ping pong where the House of Commons will review the Lords' amendments.

Find out more about the Bill

Wednesday 2 December

Government: Ministry of Justice board appointment

Sir Michael Barber has been appointed as a non-executive board member of the Ministry of Justice and will bring expertise from public service reform with a focus on effective implementation, standards and performance.

Policy Paper: Draft legislation - Corporation tax payments

Following an announcement in the summer budget 2015, the government that corporation tax payment dates for very large companies, those with taxable profits of more than £20m, will be required to pay installments earlier than large companies. HM Revenue and Customs have prepared a guidance note and are seeking comments on draft legislation by 26 February 2016.

House of Commons: Delegated Legislation

Draft Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Codes of Practice) (Revision of Code E) Order 2015

Revisions to Code E of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 were agreed to yesterday which will stop the police needing to record their interviews for four low level offences. Shadow Police Minister Jack Dromey (Lab) argued that why the four offences have been chosen and that the move flies in the face of the police forces move to use more technology including body-worn cameras, particularly as the technology is currently being trialled. Police Minister Mike Penning MP (Con) said that they would look to change PACE again to allow evidence to be taken from body-worn cameras if the pilot is successful.

The Law Society briefed Shadow Home Office Minister Jack Dromey on the issue.

Committees: Draft Investigatory Powers Bill

In a Bill Committee session on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, Chief Surveillance Commissioner Lord Judge was questioned on the obligations to prosecute lawyers to ensure that warrants used during investigations were used properly. Lord Judge noted that there was no disclosure when there had been a breach and every breach would be sent to him and then disclosed to the Crown Prosecution service.

Lord Judge also commented on the judicial review process for warrants stating that it would not just look at process but necessity and proportionality and that national security warrants would have a more stringent judicial review test.

In a later evidence session with Retiring Director of RUSI Professor Clarke he said that the legislation only introduced one new power which was to retain connection records and such bulk collection was "absolutely necessary" as Tesco already knows more about someone than MI5. He noted that the safeguards on this power will be "necessity, proportionality and legality" and any warrant would be more specific.

Science and Technology Committee on Big Data Dilemma

At an appearance in front of the Science and Technology Select Committee, Digital Economy Minister Ed Vaizey MP (Con) confirmed that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport had recently taken over responsibility for data protection. He noted that EU trialogues (EU Council, EU Parliament and EU Commission) due to agree new EU privacy rules by the end of 2015 with a first reading of legislation expected in early 2016. He specifically noted that the UK Government have pressed for reducing the burden that would be placed upon businesses by proposals regarding reporting requirements.

During the appearance Vaizey also said that he was open to the option of introducing criminal penalties for data breach cases and this was a decision that would be left for national governments under the proposed new EU rules. He did note that he wanted to avoid criminalising negligent behaviour.

Written Answers: Investigative Powers Bill

Following a question from Shadow Justice Minister Andy Slaughter MP (Lab) about the need to amend the Human Rights Act when the Investigatory Powers Bill comes into force. Home Office Minister John Hayes MP (Con) said that the draft Investigatory Powers Bill specifies that all powers will be subject to appropriate safeguards and robust oversight arrangement.

Written Answers: Court closures

Following a question David Anderson MP (Lab) on the effect of court closures on access to justice, Shailesh Vara said that the access to justice is not about proximity to a court. He said that the Government's £700m investment in court and tribunals would mean court users can attend hearings remotely and victims of crime can give evidence from somewhere they feel safe.

House of Lords: Enterprise Bill

The Bill has now reached the Report stage where peers will have further opportunity to examine and make amendments.

Find out more about the Bill

Thursday 3 December

Government: Criminal court charges

In a speech to the Magistrates Association, lord chancellor Michael Gove announced that he will be reversing the criminal court charge. He went on to lay down a statutory instrument to remove the charge which will come into force on 24 December.

During his speech, and the written statement in parliament that followed it, he also announced that he will be undertaking a review of the structure, and purpose, of court-ordered financial impositions for offenders. He notes the review aims to:

  • Give the judiciary greater discretion in setting financial impositions
  • Make financial penalties a more effective tool in delivering improved non-custodial sentences;
  • Ensuring that money raised through financial penalties plays an appropriate - and sustainable - role in supporting taxpayers to meet the costs of running the courts.

During his speech he also showed his respect for the English justice system say it was the country he can learn the most about justice from. The Lord Chancellor also said he had plans to look at giving new powers to the magistracy, modernising the way sentencing is approached and how the courts powers to rehabilitate offenders can be enhanced. Justice Select Committee Chair Bob Neill (Con) welcomed the Government's decision to scrap the criminal court charge and said that they will watch with interest the review that the Government has announced into the "whole panoply of financial impositions on offenders".

Baroness Shields OBE (Con) has been appointed as a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Home Office, in addition to her existing role as Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Her remit will still be internet safety and security, including terrorist and extremist content.

House of Commons: Bill of Rights

The lord chancellor responded to a letter from chair of the Human Rights Committee Harriett Harman QC MP where he stated that the government's proposals will protect fundamental rights, prevent abuse of the system and restore "common sense to our human rights". He noted that the Bill or Rights will be based on the European Convention on Human Rights whilst taking into account common law tradition and making clear where the balance should lie between Strasbourg and British courts. He pointed out that the government wants to remain part of the ECHR, it would not stay in at any cost.

Draft Investigatory Powers Bill

Chair of the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill Lord Murphy of Torfean (Lab) has written to Harriet Harman QC MP (Lab) to ask the Joint Committee on Human Rights to consider the human rights memorandum published to accompany the draft Investigatory Powers Bill. Due to tight timescales, Lord Murphy asked that the Committee on Human Rights consider the Bill before the two Houses rise for Christmas recess.

Housing and Planning Bill

The Bill was scrutinised by the Public Bill Committee and will continue in Public Bill Committee.

Find out more about the Bill

Tags: Westminster weekly update | court fees

About the author

Richard Messingham is head of public affairs at the Law Society. He and his team are responsible for supporting the president and CEO to manage the Society's relationships with Parliamentarians, Ministers, civil servants and other major stakeholders of direct relevance to solicitors.
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