Westminster update: Justice Select Committee investigates the regulation of the legal sector

Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
The palace of Westminster in the evening.
Photograph: Thomas Riebesehl

One thing you need to do

We have warned that further budget cuts will severely impact the already crisis-hit justice system, as an Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) analysis shows the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is facing multi-million pound cuts over the coming years.

This comes as the Crown Court backlog reaches 65,000 cases. 

What you need to know

1. Justice Select Committee investigates the regulation of the legal sector

Tuesday 28 November was the first of two evidence sessions run by the Justice Select Committee focussing on regulation of the legal sector.

First to give evidence was Nick Vineall KC, chair of the Bar Council. He stated that the Legal Services Act is fit for purpose and highlighted the compromise that was struck in 2007. He flagged that there was originally supposed to be a triannual review of the Legal Services Board (LSB) which has not happened. He added that he would welcome a review of the LSB. He also raised concerns over the Bar Standards Board’s (BSB) handling of misconduct cases and stressed the need to see improvements in timeliness. He added that since January, there has been genuine improvement and change.

Mark Neale (director-general) and Kathryn Stone OBE (chair) gave evidence for the BSB. They began by saying that, broadly speaking, the Legal Services Act is still fit for purpose. They were pleased to hear that Nick Vineall acknowledged improvements in their work but said that there were still areas where the BSB needed to improve, such as case management, timeliness and better use of data. They believe that the BSB has the right powers and tools as a regulator but highlighted a need to recruit better qualified staff.

James Daly MP challenged Mark and Kathryn on the stark difference between demand of people who wanted to become barristers and the supply of pupillage places.

Professor Chris Bones (chair) and Linda Ford (CEO) gave evidence for CILEX in what was the most argumentative of all the sessions.

James Daly MP questioned the evidence that the witnesses were using to back up their demands for a change in regulator and titles. Both witnesses called out the Law Society for “misinforming their members” over the parity between CILEX lawyers and solicitors.

Professor Bones said that there is widespread support amongst solicitors for the changes CILEX is calling for but that he doesn’t blame solicitors for not understanding the strength of a CILEX qualification when the Law Society continues to misrepresent the profession.

James Daly MP and Edward Timpson MP strongly disagreed with this view, with Daly arguing: “There is a lack of evidence for your claims. You said that all solicitors agree with your statements over changing the titles CILEX lawyers. I can tell you that is not correct.

"What you are proposing today is the deliberate destruction of the solicitor’s profession. What you are proposing is the deliberate undermining of the standards of what it means to be a solicitor. … (in opposing these proposals), the Law Society are absolutely correct.”

The final session with CILEX Regulation saw Jonathan Rees (chair) and John Barwick (CEO) give evidence. In a clear break from the evidence given by CILEX, the witnesses stated that the proposals to move CILEX regulation to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) do not make any sense. They said that the proposals on new titles for CILEX lawyers will create consumer confusion and wanted to see more evidence. They said they share the scepticism of the Law Society and highlighted their summer consultation, saying that two thirds of respondents saw no need to change the present system. Jonathan Rees went further, saying that CILEX’s proposals to move regulators is unlawful.

Our president Nick Emmerson will be in front of the Committee on 5 December, ahead of the SRA and the LSB.

Watch the session

2. Criminal Justice Bill sails through second reading

The Criminal Justice Bill passed its second reading with the government arguing it will help to tackle crime and boost trust in policing, while Labour criticised the under resourcing of the justice system.

The bill will expand police powers and create new offences around knife crime.

We have warned that allowing the police to carry out warrantless searches of properties where they suspect stolen goods are present lack safeguards and may conflict with human rights law.

We are also concerned that plans within the bill to allow the government to rent prison cells abroad are impractical, have significant implications for human rights and will see the government investing in justice systems abroad, rather than addressing the crisis we face at home.

Sir Bob Neill, chair of the Justice Select Committee, echoed these concerns saying these provisions needed careful examination while the evidence for the impact of renting prison cells abroad was mixed on whether it could make a significant difference.

The bill passed its second reading without a vote.

Labour will be supporting the bill, though they have pledged they will bring forward amendments to strengthen it during its later parliamentary stages.

3. Home Secretary's oral questions debut

The new home secretary took to the chamber for his first home office questions on Monday 27 November. Much of the questioning focused on immigration and the upcoming emergency legislation on the Rwanda policy.

On the Conservative benches, many like Jill Mortimer, Miriam Cates and Jack Brereton called for the home secretary to rejig the UK’s relationship with international treaties, in order to push the legislation through.

Cates asked that new Rwanda legislation be unambiguous in establishing that the sovereign will of Parliament takes legal precedence over the interpretation of international treaties.

The home secretary did not comment on whether the legislation would clash with any of the UK’s international obligations. He denied the fact that the legislation would undermine the ruling of the Supreme Court, saying" “I suggest that when the government address the issues set down by the Supreme Court, they will not be overriding but respecting the voice of the Supreme Court.”

Questions were also put to the new parliamentary under-secretary of state for the home department, Laura Farris, on violence against women and girls.

Farris said that the specialist sexual violence support project is now underway and in its early stages and is due a report in early 2025. She added that any victim of rape or sexual assault may now take advantage of section 28 procedures, which have been rolled out nationwide to allow people to give their evidence privately and ahead of trial. She also said that the government are engaging close to 1,000 independent sexual violence advisers in the system to accompany victims every step of the way through the criminal justice system.

She added that the Criminal Justice Bill will see serious coercive control offences placed under the multi-agency public protection arrangements and offenders placed on the violent sexual and terrorist offender register.

4. Lords question lack of mental health bill

The Lords has seen several oral questions and debates tabled in the past two weeks to discuss the lack of a mental health bill in the King’s Speech.

Lord Bradley (Labour) said that the government has promised to reform the Mental Health Act for over six years, but has done nothing about this promise. He said that with the bill being dropped completely from the legislative programme, there is a feeling of real frustration.

While the minister, Lord Markham said that he understood the frustration, he was pushed by Lords to substantiate what is going to be done in lieu of primary legislation.

Lord Allan of Hallam (Liberal Democrat) said that with the bill being dropped, the government needs to produce a list, with details and dates, of all the measures it intends to take to improve mental health practices via statutory instruments and new guidance in this parliamentary session.

Specific concerns were raised by Lords about what the lack of a mental health bill might mean for those in long-term segregation.

Baroness Browning (Conservative) said that the government have made promises about solitary confinement that have not been kept and have made targets that have been widely missed.

Baroness Hollins (Crossbench) said that with no mental health bill in the King’s Speech, changes to the code of practice must be achieved by different means.

Coming up

Our president, Nick Emmerson, will appear before the Justice Select Committee on 5 December to give evidence on the regulatory framework for solicitors.

We are working on a number of bills in Parliament:

If you made it this far...

On Monday, the government published the Leasehold and Freehold Bill.

This long-awaited bill amends the rights of long-term residents to acquire freeholds.

We will monitor the bill closely to ensure it achieves its ambitions to bring fairness to the housing market.

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