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Westminster weekly update: Withdrawal agreement reached between UK and EU

18 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

Read our ten tips for a no deal Brexit to ensure your firm is prepared.

Read our ten tips for firms preparing for a no deal Brexit

Five things you need to know

1. Withdrawal agreement reached between UK and EU

On Thursday, prime minister Boris Johnson announced via Twitter that a new UK-EU withdrawal agreement has been reached. He said: “We’ve got a great new deal that takes back control – now Parliament should get Brexit done on Saturday so we can move on to other priorities like the cost of living, the NHS, violent crime and our environment.” President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has confirmed that an agreement has been reached, saying “where there is a will, there’s a deal.”

The concession by the UK Government to install customs checks at the points of entry into Northern Ireland is seen as the critical element for ensuring the integrity of the Single Market and preventing a hard border with Ireland.

If the deal is approved by the UK Parliament, the European Parliament is expected to expedite the ratification process in time to hold their final Consent Vote on next week's Plenary session in Strasbourg. In the event that the deal is voted down in either parliament, a decision an any extension will be taken by the European Council.

In the event that the deal enters into force, the second stage of negotiations on a future relationship will commence on the basis of the amended Political Declaration. While the vast majority of the clauses in the Political Declaration remain the same as those agreed by Theresa May in November 2018, it has been noted in Brussels that most of the revisions centre around references to level-playing field commitments.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said that the deal will provide “legal certainty,” particularly for citizens. He said the transition period would last until the end of 2020, but could be extended for another year, or even two, if there is joint agreement.

MPs have voted to sit on Saturday and vote on the deal, although due to an amendment from Sir Oliver Letwin, the motion on the deal will be amendable, and opposition MPs may attempt to attach a requirement for a confirmatory referendum.

Read the government's Revised Protocol to the withdrawal agreement

Justice and Brexit feature prominently in Queen's Speech

Monday saw the State Opening of Parliament and the delivery of the Queen’s Speech, which sets out the government’s legislative agenda for the new session of parliament. Justice formed a key theme of the speech, with no fewer than ten bills announced in this area, including the return of the Domestic Abuse Bill, which was carried over from the last session, and reintroduction of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill, which fell at the close of the last session.

Brexit also featured prominently, including the announcement of a specific bill aimed at implementing international agreements on cross-border justice issues. Other bills that will be of interest to solicitors include a Health Service Safety Investigations Bill, which will establish a new independent body to investigate patient safety concerns, and a proposal to reform the Mental Health Act to improve patient autonomy and ability to challenge detentions.

Read more about what the Queen’s Speech means for solicitors and the law

Read the Law Society’s response

3. Probate fee hike scrapped following Law Society campaign

Over the weekend the lord chancellor confirmed that the government’s proposals to raise fees charged for a grant of probate have been officially scrapped. This is a victory for the Law Society, which has campaigned vigorously against the increase on behalf of practitioners and bereaved families.

During the campaign, the Law Society’s arguments against the fee hike were cited in parliament 13 times, and were featured in 26 pieces of national media coverage, including pieces by Sky News, the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph. A total of 2,624 people meanwhile signed up to a Law Society campaign tool which allowed them to write to their local MPs urging them to oppose the fee increase.

The lord chancellor also announced that the Ministry of Justice will conduct a wider review of court fees, which will involve only “small adjustments to cover costs.” No further details of this review have yet been released, but the Law Society looks forward to an opportunity to contribute to the review.

Read more about the campaign

Read the Law Society’s response to the announcement

4. Law Society referenced by Justice Select Committee

Research by the Law Society relating to the impact of a no deal Brexit was referenced during a Justice Select Committee evidence session on the work of the lord chancellor on Wednesday. Chair of the Committee Bob Neill NP said that a no deal Brexit could cost the legal sector approximately £3.5 billion in turnover, and a possible 10,000 jobs.

In response, Robert Buckland QC MP paid tribute to the legal sector for its engagement with international counterparts and said that the government was continuing to engage with the sector in order to understand its needs and priorities, and to better understand how it could support these.

Buckland said that he accepted a no deal would mean a "qualitative change" in the nature of civil and criminal justice cooperation, but that the MoJ was "very ambitious" in terms of its objective for a future relationship.

Other topics discussed during the session included court reform, probate fees, the most recent spending review and the judicial appointment process.

Watch the session back

5. Public Accounts Committee inquiry on courts and tribunals modernisation continues

On Wednesday the Public Accounts Committee continued their inquiry into progress of the transforming courts and tribunals programme. The session followed on from one in which the Law Society’s Richard Miller gave evidence last week. The session featured the following witnesses:

  • Sir Richard Heaton, permanent secretary, Ministry of Justice
  • Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive, HMCTS
  • Richard Goodman, change director, HMCTS

During the session:

  • progress of the programme – Richard Heaton noted that the programme is still scheduled to deliver in 2023, to deliver the benefits it said it would, and that projects are being delivered successfully and with user feedback. Susan Acland-Hood defended the change the timescales for the programme shifting from 4 years to 6 years then to 7 years, saying that it is an example of Government taking their time to ensure that the changes are done in the right way
  • Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill – Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP (Con) asked about legislation for the modernisation of courts. Richard Heaton said he hopes the Bill will be introduced as soon as time allows. Susan Acland-Hood said that the implication of the delay in the Bill’s passage would be on those services. Without the separate online rules committee, progress on modernisation will be slower as it will be reliant on going through existing rules committees. She said that any delay however shouldn’t hamper the modernisation process
  • criminal justice system capacity – Following an increase in funding for the police and CPS, there may be a rise in cases. Susan Acland-Hood said that there is capacity for additional cases in our magistrates and crown courts which HMCTS could move to use relatively easily. She said that there may need to be an increase in sitting days, which is being kept under review. If there was a significant increase however, she would have concerns about courts maintenance and the impact on trials
  • budget pressures – Shabana Mahmood MP asked about budget pressures and the decision to cut the Transforming Compliance and Enforcement Programme (TCEP). Richard Heaton and Susan Acland-Hood both regretted that the decision had to be taken, but said that it had to stop the programme due to budget pressures. It hoped to pick it up again when it is able to, and that the work done on the programme had not been lost
  • court closures – Susan Acland-Hood says they do not have any plans to close further courts other than those they have consulted on and are in the public domain at present. Richard Heaton said the next round have not been identified, although the NAO report envisages further closures. Any decisions will be based on court need and access to justice

Watch the session back

Coming up next week

For the first time since the Falklands War, parliament will meet for a special session on Saturday 19 October to vote on the revised UK-EU withdrawal agreement.

Saturday is also the deadline for the Benn Act, which requires the prime minister to ask the EU for an extension of Article 50 if the government has not passed the withdrawal agreement, or secured parliament's approval for a no deal Brexit.

Next week will also see the final debates on the Queen's Speech before it is voted on by parliament.

If you made it this far

Take a look at our new guidance for Registered European Lawyers and Registered Foreign Lawyers on how their situation will change in different Brexit scenarios.

Tags: Westminster weekly update | Brexit | courts

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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