Westminster update: Law Society in Parliament to discuss legal ethics

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

This week the government announced a change to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill which will enable the government to end around 70% of SLAPPs cases (strategic lawsuits against public participation).

Judges will be given greater powers to dismiss lawsuits designed purely to evade scrutiny and stifle freedom of speech.

We have welcomed the announcement, with president Lubna Shuja saying: “We are pleased the government is implementing these measures. However, it’s disappointing that only cases related to economic crime are covered as it does not close off the option of some claimants using SLAPPs to stifle scrutiny.”

The amendment was tabled by Lord Bellamy under Clause 187. 

This change will be debated next week when the bill is in the Lords for report stage.

Read our full response

What you need to know

1. Law Society in Parliament to discuss legal ethics

On Wednesday 14 June our president, Lubna Shuja, joined the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal and Constitutional Affairs for a session on ethics and the independence of the legal profession.

The event boasted a panel including:

  • attorney general Victoria Prentis
  • former lord chief justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd
  • shadow solicitor general Andy Slaughter
  • APPG co-chairs Laura Farris and Lord Hunt of Wirral
  • chair of the Bar Council, Nick Vineall

Shuja addressed attacks on the integrity of the legal profession, which she explained undermine the rule of law.

She said that it is misleading and dangerous for ministers to name-call lawyers who are doing their job and upholding the rule of law. She argued that people should all be proud that we live in a country where legal rights cannot be overridden without due process, and that we have legal professionals who serve the law and keep the government accountable.

The attorney general said that she, and all law officers, have duties above and beyond those of other lawyers, in that they have a duty of candour. She said that they have the ethical obligation to speak truth to power; we ‘really have to say it how it is, and why’.

Slaughter noted plans to reform SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation), which he said is long overdue.

He said that the subject is not easy to resolve, as the hands of lawyers shouldn’t be tied, but it is clear that direction on this topic is needed.

Chair of the Bar Council Nick Vineall said that he believed that barristers should not engage in judging the morality of their clients, and that this is for judges and juries only.

He said that is very important that lawyers are not associated with the cause of their client just because they have represented them.

2. Home secretary unable to provide key immigration figures

The home secretary, Suella Braverman, attended an evidence session with the Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday 14 June.

Questions revolved around the topic of immigration figures and the asylum backlog.

It became quickly apparent that the Home Office are unable to provide important data which would allow parliamentarians properly to scrutinise the workings of the Home Office, and government immigration policy. For example, the Home Secretary was unable to confirm how many asylum caseworkers are currently employed by the Home Office, with her latest figure being from March.

On the subject of the Illegal Migration Bill, the chair asked why there is still not an economic impact assessment available to parliamentarians.

Braverman said that the assessment will be available in ‘due course’, with no suggestion of when that might be. She admitted that at this current time she could not predict the costs of detaining people under the bill.

Braverman was unable to give a figure on how many people she thought would be detained immediately upon the bill becoming an act, given it will be backdated.

Further challenges were made about the efficiency of the Home Office.

Tim Loughton (Conservative) stated that at the current pace, the legacy backlog will not be cleared by the end of the year, as promised by the prime minister.

3.Criminal legal profession: lord chief justice flags “attrition” concerns to Parliament

In his final appearance before parliamentarians ahead of his retirement in September, the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, described how the “attrition” and “long term undermining” of the criminal legal profession has meant it is now difficult to find advocates for criminal cases.

During the session on Wednesday 14 June the lord chief discussed how the courts backlog is rising due to an increase in the volume of cases entering the courts, while the case mix itself is made up of more difficult and complex cases.

He said it is a “worry” that 29% of Crown Court cases have been outstanding for longer than 12 months.

Turning to the challenge of securing funding for the courts, Lord Burnett said he had tried to focus the Treasury on the administration of justice as more than simply another service, as business and “society will not flourish” without it.

Questioned by peers on the nature of the role of the lord chancellor itself, Lord Burnett suggested the political profile of the role may be overshadowing its core constitutional functions, including upholding the rule of law.

Finally, on diversity in the judiciary, the lord chief highlighted his work with the professions, including the Law Society, to improve diversity in terms of background, but also profession.

He said he is also exploring ways to measure social mobility among those pursuing a judicial career better.

4. Retained EU Law Bill: last chance for the Lords

On Tuesday 13 June, the Retained EU Law Bill was back in the House of Commons for the consideration of Lords’ messages.

The debate focused on three amendments: on scrutiny, non-regression and reporting of progress.

The government urged members to dismiss the proposed changes on environmental protections and scrutiny, and the debate fell back into old arguments over Brexit.

Solicitor general Michael Tomlinson (Conservative) led the debate, repeatedly assuring MPs that non-regression clauses on environmental protections and additional scrutiny powers were unnecessary and novel.

The bill is back in the Lords on Tuesday for what is likely to their last chance to table counter amendments.

We are continuing to brief MPs and peers as the bill moves forward.

Coming up:

We will be working closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills and inquiries:

If you made it this far...

Read our response to the government’s consultation on mandatory mediation.

We argue the provisions may deny access to justice.

Instead, problems in the family court should be addressed through greater access to early legal advice and greater options for divorcing couples.

Read our response.

Maximise your Law Society membership with My LS