Westminster update: Law Society wins criminal legal aid judicial review

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

Read the High Court judgment stating the government have "acted unlawfully" in not adhering to recommendations on criminal legal aid uplifts.

What you need to know

1. Law Society wins criminal legal aid judicial review

We won our judicial review against the Ministry of Justice over its decision not to implement, in full, the recommendations of the Bellamy Review of criminal legal aid (CLAIR) on Wednesday 31 January.

We are delighted that the court recognised the government’s decisions around CLAIR were irrational and must be rethought.

The court acknowledged in its judgment that “the system is slowly coming apart at the seams” and that “the system depends to an unacceptable degree on the goodwill and generosity of spirit of those currently working within it”.

The court praised the “impressive, compelling, body of evidence” we brought forward on behalf of our members to show this.

Significantly, the court also recognised that “unless there are significant injections of funding in the relatively near future, any prediction along the lines that the system will arrive in due course at a point of collapse is not overly pessimistic”.

The court ruled that the decisions made on CLAIR were irrational and that then lord chancellor Dominic Raab had made insufficient enquiries as to the state of the criminal legal aid sector before making them.

This is part of our work as the professional body for solicitors – amplifying the powerful collective voice of more than 200,000 members by advocating at the highest levels on the issues you’ve told us matter most.

Looking to the future and what comes next, we are now over two years on from when Lord Bellamy made his recommendation for a 15% increase in all criminal legal aid rates.

This was intended to be the bare minimum and a starting point.

Since then, the smaller amounts the government had chosen to invest in the system have been wiped out by inflation. Without intervention, practitioners will continue to be forced from the sector.

We are already seeing there are not enough solicitors to represent suspects at police stations and in magistrates courts. This will only worsen and have devastating impacts on justice and our society.

We are now urging Alex Chalk, the lord chancellor, to act quickly; demonstrate the government is serious about our criminal justice system and put in place the sustainable funding criminal legal aid desperately needs by reversing the irrational decisions taken by Raab.

It is not too late for the government to take the steps needed to help ensure access to justice remains open to all and that criminal defence work is financially viable.

We look forward to working closely with the lord chancellor in the weeks to come on how we can achieve this goal.

2. Rwanda Bill heavily criticised by Lords

On Monday 29 January, the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords.

Over 6 hours of debate, just over 60 peers put forward various views on the bill, a majority of which were critical of the proposed legislation.

Lord Etherton (crossbench) argued that the safety provisions agreed in the treaty, which underpin the central theme of the bill that Rwanda is a safe country, have not yet been ratified or sufficiently implemented.

Lord Etherton also stated his concern that the bill represents a “blatant usurpation of the judiciary’s function”.

Several Conservative peers also voiced considerable concerns with the bill.

Lord Dobbs pleaded that he wished the government had “tried to create new conventions and a new understanding of the challenges of mass migration”, and Lord Udny-Lister bluntly stated, “My Lords, I do not like the bill”.

The debate also saw indications of possible amendments to be tabled during the upcoming committee stage, with Lord Anderson of Ipswich (crossbench) asserting the need for “an independent body on the ground to tell us when the deficiencies already identified have been remedied, and a mechanism for ensuring that, when conditions change, the verdict [that Rwanda is safe] can change”.

The bill is set to continue its passage through the Lords with the beginning of committee stage on 12 February.

It is predicted to face a number of significant amendments that could slow down its passage.

3. Trade Bill enters the Commons

Monday 29 January marked the halfway point for the progression of the Trade (CPTPP) Bill with second reading in the Commons.

The bill will formalise the UK’s accession to the agreement, giving us access to new markets in Brunei and Malaysia as well as strengthening our bilateral relations with the nine other members with which we already have trade agreements.

The business secretary was keen to highlight that accession to the agreement will contribute £2 billion a year to UK GDP, noting that the future potential for economic gains depends on which countries choose to accede and how many businesses in the UK choose to take advantage of the agreement.

A free trade agreement utilisation programme will be critical to gaining the greatest possible benefits from the CPTPP.

When asked about the potential accession of China, she was evasive, adding: “there are six economies with applications to join the group—China, Taiwan, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Ukraine—and more may apply. Members have not yet made any decisions on which economies will accede in future.”

Highlighting Labour’s views was shadow international trade minister Gareth Thomas who was less than optimistic about the agreement. He noted that “for the foreseeable future, this trade deal will have, at best, a minor impact on our terms of trade.”

From a legal services perspective we have been clear that the current state of the CPTPP agreement does very little for legal services, but the upcoming review may provide us with an opportunity to push for better market access.

As well as discussing the agreement, parliamentarians were keen to understand the reasons for the suspension of the UK-Canada FTA negotiations.

While it is clear that it is disagreements on agriculture and goods that have stalled the talks, this will have an impact on the work that service-based industries, including the legal sector, have put into the discussions.

Lord Offord (Conservative) made a statement in the Lords on Tuesday (30 January) clarifying the reasons for the pause and stressing that the government is making good progress towards improving the post-Brexit trading landscape.

Coming up:

The chancellor of the exchequer will give his spring budget on 6 March.

We have made a submission to the treasury outlining steps the government can take to unleash the economic potential of legal services.

We are working on a number of bills in parliament:

Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill will begin its committee stage in the Lords on 12 February

Victims and Prisoners Bill began its committee stage in the Lords on 24 January.

Renters (Reform) Bill will have its report stage in the Commons, date to be announced.

Criminal Justice Bill began its committee stage in the Commons on 12 December.

Leasehold and Freehold Bill will begin its report stage in the Lords, date to be announced.

Sentencing Bill will have its committee stage, date to be announced.

Trade (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) Bill will begin its committee stage in the Commons, date to be announced.

Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill will have its committee stage in the Lords, date to be announced.

Arbitration Bill will have its Lords committee stage, date to be announced.

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