Westminster update: Post Office Horizon scandal

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

The Ministry of Justice has launched a call for evidence as part of the ongoing review of civil legal aid this week.

We are urging the government to use this call for evidence to make a meaningful change by investing in civil legal aid and ensuring there is a future for this vital public service. 

What you need to know

1. Post Office Horizon scandal: government announces legislation

This week finally saw some parliamentary momentum to help the victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal.

The prime minister announced that new primary legislation will be tabled in the coming weeks to overturn criminal convictions and allow victims to access compensation.

This is an exceptional step, with the government making a clear intervention in the court process.

We welcomed the move but were clear that this cannot set a precedent for further interventions.

We have also raised the need to recognise that the method for quashing criminal convictions – signing an affidavit – will mean that some guilty people will slip through the cracks.

In light of this, we are keen to see a ministerial statement giving assurances that this is an exceptional measure, and that the independence of the justice system remains respected.

We are monitoring the development of the legislation closely and expect to see the text in the next few weeks.

The issue will remain at the top of the agenda in Westminster as the inquiry continues.

The Business and Trade Committee meets on Tuesday 16 January to hear evidence from:

  • Alan Bates
  • the current Post Office CEO
  • the Director of Fujitsu
  • the Minister

Watch the session live.

2. Justice questions: MPs discuss Law Society civil justice ideas

MPs used justice questions this week (Tuesday 9 January) to raise:

  • legal aid
  • attacks on human rights legislation
  • the Post Office scandal

We were mentioned by SNP MP Allan Dorans who highlighted our 21st Century Justice Project and our recent Green Paper which puts forward ideas to reform the civil justice system.

Dorans asked if the MoJ had raised the paper with the treasury to secure additional funding for the legal aid system.

Justice minister Mike Freer said £141m had been invested in the legal aid system, and claimed that this addresses many of the concerns held by practitioners.

We maintain the view that our legal aid system is in crisis.

Our legal aid desert maps show how millions cannot access civil legal aid locally and we have taken the government to court over its failure to implement the recommendations of the review of criminal legal aid.

We continue to raise this regularly with Freer and the MoJ ministerial team.

MPs also raised questions about the Safety of Rwanda Bill, with SNP MP Stuart C McDonald highlighting that this is now the second piece of legislation that the Government has admitted may not comply with the Human Rights Act.

The lord chancellor, Alex Chalk, rejected this characterisation however.

3. MPs gear up for battle over Rwanda Bill

Battle lines have been drawn over the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill this week as MPs from across the House of Commons have tabled amendments both to strengthen and weaken the bill.

MPs from the right wing of the Conservative party, led by the likes of former ministers Robert Jenrick and Suella Braverman, have banded together to put forward a number of amendments that seek to restrict the possibility of any challenge from domestic or international courts.

Amendment 23 for instance attempts to make clear that any interim measure issued by the European Court of Human Rights should be treated as non-binding on the UK, and capable of being ignored by ministers.

On the other hand, former lord chancellor Sir Robert Buckland has tabled an amendment to remove provisions from the bill that would allow a minister to disregard an interim measure.

These amendments and others will be debated by MPs at committee stage, which will run over Tuesday and Wednesday next week.

The prime minister will be hoping to manage the two opposing factions within his party and steer his bill safely through this challenge, and it remains to be seen whether he will feel the need to make concession to do so.

Coming up:

The lady chief justice will be giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee on Tuesday 16 January – the session can be followed live here.

We are working on a number of bills in Parliament:

Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill will begin its committee stage in the commons on 16 January.

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

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

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

Leasehold and Freehold Bill will begin its committee stage in the Commons on 16 January.

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

Trade (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) Bill will begin its report stage in the Lords on 16 January.

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 second reading in the Lords, date to be announced.

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