Criminal legal aid

Westminster update: Government raises legal criminal aid rates

Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.

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What you need to know

1. Government raises legal criminal aid rates

The government laid down regulations to increase criminal legal aid this week, which will come into force in September.

We welcomed the increase in rates for police station and magistrates work on Thursday 20 July. We were clear that further investment is needed to:

  • put criminal legal aid on a sustainable footing, and
  • meet the recommendations of the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid

The regulations will only see a 9% increase for solicitors overall, rather than the 15% that the independent review of criminal legal aid said was the “minimum necessary” to sustain the criminal legal aid system.

This step should be seen as the foundation for funding – and a floor, not a ceiling.

Further increases are needed in the autumn, when the government is due to publish its full response to the consultation on its criminal legal aid reforms.

The government has highlighted that an additional £20m has been set aside for longer-term reforms and there will be “potential further increases for solicitors and other legal professionals”.

This year is make or break for the criminal justice system. We will continue to push the government to ensure the sector gets the funding it urgently needs.

Read what we are doing to secure investment for criminal legal aid

2. Government to overhaul SLAPPs

Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) are set to be overhauled in a welcome move.

The UK Government published its response to a consultation on proposals to deal with the issue on Wednesday 20 July.

In March this year, the Lord Chancellor launched an urgent call for evidence in response to the challenges presented by the increasing use of SLAPPs.

SLAPPs can be characterised as an abuse of the legal process, where the primary objective is to harass, intimidate, and financially and psychologically exhaust one’s opponent via improper means.

The Lord Chancellor set out a package of measures, including a cap on costs.

Under the reforms, a court will be able to apply a new three-part test to determine whether a case should be thrown out immediately or be allowed to progress.

  1. It will assess if the case is against activity in the public interest – for example, investigating financial misconduct by a company or individual
  2. It will then examine if there’s evidence of abuse of process, and
  3. Finally, it will review whether the case has sufficient merit

Anyone subject to a suspected SLAPPs case will be able to apply to the court to have it considered for early dismissal.

We welcomed the government’s initiative to strengthen and clarify the rules surrounding SLAPPs.

In response to the government’s new measures this week, President I. Stephanie Boyce said: “We are pleased to see the government has taken on board some of our recommendations to ensure SLAPPs do not have a chilling effect on freedom of speech or the right to a private life… The new three-part test will also go some way to ensuring there is strong gatekeeping by the judiciary and spurious cases do not make it to court.”

3. Race to become next Prime Minister intensifies

Only two candidates remain in the race to become the next Prime Minister after finishing in the top two in the final ballot of Conservative MPs on Wednesday 20 July:

  • Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, and
  • Rishi Sunak, former Chancellor of the Exchequer

The two final candidates will now try to balance maintaining the party image whilst challenging the other’s credibility to their conservative members.

Rishi Sunak has been challenged by fellow Tory MPs for calling his opponent a ‘Liberal Democrat’. Liz Truss has been criticising the former chancellor’s economic record in a bid to win member votes.

Tom Tugendhat, Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt were eliminated from the contest on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday respectively.

4. Northern Ireland Protocol Bill passes through Commons

The government's controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill cleared the House of Commons this week. It passed its third reading in the Commons on Wednesday 20 July by 267 votes to 195.

Amendments had been tabled by two Northern Irish parties:

  • the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and
  • the Alliance Party

Labour MPs also joined in an attempt to water down the legislation.

The amendments would give ministers the power to scrap parts of the EU-UK Northern Ireland Protocol. They were ultimately all unsuccessful.

During the bill’s third reading, Shadow Foreign Minister Stephen Doughty described the bill as “a brazen ministerial power grab”. He asserted that Labour were voting against the bill “to uphold the rule of international law” and to protect the UK’s “global reputation”.

Scottish National Party (SNP) MP Richard Thomson similarly argued that the UK can no longer claim “to stand up for international law and the rule of law”.

On the other side of the House, Conservative MP Sir Bill Cash stated that people claiming the bill is in contravention of international law were “talking through their hats".

The bill will now go to the House of Lords in the autumn following parliament’s summer recess.

5. Minister confirms UK to stay in European Convention

Several peers quizzed Justice Minister Lord Bellamy on whether the UK Government was committed to remaining within the Convention during oral questions on Monday 18 July.

Many peers were concerned about the comments being made by Conservative Party leadership candidates.

  • Attorney General Suella Braverman stated multiple times that she wished to withdraw the UK from the Convention, and
  • Foreign Secretary Liz Truss also stated that she would be prepared to withdraw

The minister replied that the government is committed to staying in the Convention, calling any ideas to leave “reckless”.

He said that what the candidates for leadership said in their campaigns was “neither here nor there”, and that the government is still honouring its manifesto commitment to remain within the Convention.

Coming up

Parliament rose for the summer recess on Thursday 21 July, and will next sit on Monday 5 September.

When parliament returns, we will be working closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills and inquiries:

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