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Party conference season continues

02 October 2015

Richard Messingham outlines the Law Society's activity at the Conservative party conference, and provides an overview of the key policy debates, developments and announcements.

We are nearly coming to the end of party conference season, with the Liberal Democrat, Labour and UKIP conferences having passed, and the Conservative conference starting this Sunday in Manchester. The Law Society has had a presence at all conferences, at fringe debates, reception events, dinners and panel sessions. we have been working closely with each party's lawyers association to enable the president and vice president to meet with key ministers, shadow ministers and other political stakeholders to promote the Society's priorities for justice. I updated you on the Liberal Democrat and UKIP conference last Friday. This week in Brighton at the Labour Conference, the president took part in a Question Time style panel event, organised by the Society of Labour Lawyers, with fellow panellists including the Shadow Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, the Shadow Attorney General, Catherine McKinnell MP, and Bar Council chair Alistair MacDonald. This was followed by a dinner with executive members of the Society of Labour Lawyers, and members of the justice frontbench.

There were a number of fringe meetings on justice and legal issues during the conference, with regular appearances from the shadow justice frontbench such as Lord Falconer, setting out how his party was firmly in 'listening mode', and starting to reconsider what the party's justice policy should be in time for the 2020 general election. One instance of this listening mode is the new wide ranging review of legal aid announced by Jeremy Corbyn and Falconer last week to be led by former justice minister until 2010, Lord Bach. The president met with Lord Bach on Monday, and sought some further information on the scope and timing of Bach's review, and will make sure that the views of the profession are listened to during his one-to-two year review.

The vice president, Robert Bourns will be attending the Conservative conference in Manchester on Monday and will be speaking at a number of high-profile events, including alongside the Attorney General, Jeremy Wright QC MP and with the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid MP. He will also host a dinner with local members, a number of MPs, and with the Minister of State for Justice, Lord Faulks.

Sunday 27 September

Fringe event with the Society of Labour Lawyers

The Society of Labour Lawyers hosted a Question Time style panel event in Brighton for the Labour Conference, with president Jonathan Smithers, Bar Council chair Alistair MacDonald QC, Shadow Lord Chancellor Charlie Falconer, and Shadow Attorney General Catherine McKinnell MP as panellists.

At the meeting Lord Falconer stated that the opposition frontbench has four key priorities:

  • Protecting the justice system - with an emphasis on protecting the poor and vulnerable in society from the impact caused by the reforms to legal aid, the reduction of access to early legal advice, delays in courts and increases in fees of courts and tribunals.
  • Protecting the human rights settlement - preventing some human rights from being tiered or reprioritised.
  • Prioritising the prison population - reducing re-offending rates.
  • Resourcing the opposition's views - ensuring availability of high quality legal advice for the opposition.

He also added that there was a need for the legal community to agree a 'minimum standard of justice' and that leadership was needed (including from senior members of the judiciary) to implement those standards. The solutions to these issues are not just about money.

Monday 28 September

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell addresses Labour conference

Newly appointed Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell MP, addressed the Labour Party delegates for the first time, outlining his party's new economic plan to the conference hall. McDonnell said that the rejection of austerity politics had been at the heart of Jeremy Corbyn's campaign for the Labour leadership. He declared it was possible to tackle the deficit fairly by growing the economy and investing in strategic industries to deliver growth that reached all sections of the country: 'Austerity is not an economic necessity. It is a political choice,' the Shadow Chancellor told the conference. Critics noted on how it veered away from his traditional style of speeches, known for their diatribe and often aggressive, soap box nature, and offered a more pragmatic and measured approach.

Read the full speech

Fringe event at Labour Party Conference - Securing our Human Rights? Challenges for the Labour Party in 2015

Speaking at a Labour Conference fringe event entitled 'Securing our Human Rights? Challenges for the Labour Party in 2015' were:

  • Shadow Justice Secretary, Lord Falconer
  • Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Catherine West
  • Shadow Home Office Minister Sir Keir Starmer
  • Labour MEP Richard Howitt

The event was hosted by Amnesty International UK and was chaired by the Director of Amnesty International UK, Katie Allen.

Shadow Justice Secretary Lord Falconer asserted that the assault on the Human Rights Act was both 'real and imminent'. The struggle over human rights was important in the UK, but also set a precedent for countries worldwide. Concluding, he stated that Labour stood 'shoulder-to-shoulder' with the Human Rights Act. He said that it was not enough for Labour to 'talk amongst ourselves' and he called for an inclusive political campaign.

Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Catherine West said it was important not to obfuscate the debate with legal detail. She spoke on children in care and stated that it was important to have a legal framework that protected such a vulnerable group of people. Moving on, she said that for refugees and asylum seekers with no recourse to public funds, it was important that such a group was able to use the Human Rights Act to access resources.

Shadow Home Office Minister Sir Keir Starmer cited a case from 2009, in which a young man with learning disabilities and communication difficulties had been involved in an altercation in a café and part of his ear had been bitten off. He said that during the court case, the defendant's team had questioned the ability of the young man to give evidence, and as a result the prosecution was dropped. As a result of legal aid, Sir Keir said that the young man was able to challenge that decision in the high court under the Human Rights Act, and he won.

Tuesday 29 September

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn MP gives keynote speech to Labour conference in Brighton

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, gave his first, and quite possibly (if we trust the ratings) last speech at the Labour Party's annual Conference in Brighton. He began by referring to some of the media reporting of him since his election two weeks ago, joking that, contrary to some reports, he would not endorse the planet Earth being wiped out by an asteroid unless the policy were first passed by Labour's conference. Moving on, he declared: "It is a huge honour to speak to you today as leader of the Labour Party". He then noted that over 50,000 people had joined the party since the leadership election, and also thanked his Constituency Labour Party and supporters, while welcoming new members to the party. Mr Corbyn began to set out the task facing the Labour Party in changing the country, beginning with the 2016 devolved and regional elections.

Read the full speech

Fringe event at Labour Party Conference - Technology and Surveillance: the impact on Business, Politics and Society

Speaking at a Labour fringe entitled 'Technology and Surveillance: the impact on Business, Politics and Society' hosted by Big Brother Watch were:

  • Catherine West MP, Shadow Foreign Office Minister
  • Geoff White, Technology Producer for Channel 4 News
  • Antony Walker, Deputy CEO of techUK

Proceedings were chaired by Renate Samson, Chief Executive of Big Brother Watch.

Opening the session, Ms Samson said that it was anticipated that the Investigatory Powers Bill would be "published in the next month or so". The impact of this would be profound, she said, calling for the debate on the issue to be opened up beyond just a few vocal parliamentarians.

Mr Walker described the forthcoming Bill as an "extraordinarily important piece of legislation". He said that the tech industry welcomed the rethink of the existing framework governing communications data, recognising a need for an update given changes in technology and consumer behaviour.

Ms West expressed a number of concerns regarding the Investigatory Powers Bill. Firstly, she said she was concerned about a new framework which would allow the civilian police to access retained communications data. Referring to her time in local government, she said that "large organisations make mistakes" and data breaches were more likely if access was opened up.

Wednesday 30 September

Shadow Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, keynote speech to the Labour Party conference

Shadow Justice Secretary Lord (Charlie) Falconer gave his keynote speech to delegates at Labour Party Conference, thanking and congratulating his new justice team, and with a lot of focus on protecting the Human Rights Act and also the damages to society caused by the Coalition and now Conservative government's changes to the justice system.

Read the full speech

House of Lords written answer - Lord Beecham and legal aid

Asked by Lord Beecham on the 16 September 2015 Ministry of Justice (Lords):

To ask Her Majesty's government what assessment they have made of the impact on the funding and number of legal advice centres of changes to legal aid and advice following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

Lord Faulks answered on the 30 September 2015:

We have specifically protected civil legal aid so it remains available where legal help and advice is most needed; where life or liberty is at stake, or where there is a serious risk of harm such as where there is evidence of domestic violence or child abuse.

We have commissioned a survey examining how the not-for-profit sector is responding to these changes, which we plan to publish by the end of 2015.

Furthermore, we have committed to reviewing the legal aid reforms set out in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 within three to five years of implementation.

Thursday 1 October

Ministry of Justice publishes Open consultation: Enhancing the quality of criminal advocacy

The government has published 'Open consultation: Enhancing the quality of criminal advocacy' today, and are seeking views on:

  • the proposed introduction of a panel scheme – publicly funded criminal defence advocacy in the Crown Court and above would be undertaken by advocates who are members of this panel
  • the proposed introduction of a statutory ban on referral fees
  • how disguised referral fees can be identified and prevented
  • the proposed introduction of stronger measures to ensure client choice and prevent conflicts of interest

These measures seek to address the concerns highlighted by Sir Bill Jeffrey in his Review of Independent Criminal Advocacy.

Please access the consultation here

The government to outlaw legal referral fees

A new statutory ban on referral fees in criminal cases was among proposals announced by the Legal Aid Minister Shailesh Vara on Thursday. Launching the consultation, Shailesh Vara said:

"This government is determined to ensure we continue to have vibrant and effective advocacy in our courts. That is why we cancelled proposed cuts to criminal legal aid for barristers earlier this year, and today we are going further. The payment of referral fees to secure instruction is unacceptable – which is why we want to change the law in order to tackle this issue. The guiding principle in advising clients on their choice of advocate must always be the competence and experience of the advocate - rather than their willingness to pay a referral fee."

Friday 2 October

Zac Goldsmith MP nominated as Conservative Party candidate for mayoral election

Zac Goldsmith MP has been chosen by Conservative Party members as their candidate for the 2016 mayoral elections, with over 70 per cent of the vote. He beat London Assembly Member Andrew Boff, MEP Syed Kamall and London's deputy mayor for crime and policing Stephen Greenhalgh. Mr Goldsmith's main rival is Labour's Sadiq Khan MP (formerly Shadow Lord Chancellor). Caroline Pidgeon is the Lib Dem candidate, Sian Berry will contest the election for the Greens and UKIP has chosen its culture spokesman Peter Whittle. Former Respect MP George Galloway is also running.

Tags: justice | politics | Westminster weekly update | Conservatives | party conferences

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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