Westminster update: deserts, closed courts and SLAPPs

Your weekly update from our 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

Employment tribunal fees could diminish access to justice, we have warned

We submitted our response to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ’s) consultation on introducing fees in the Employment Tribunals and the Employment Appeal Tribunal last week.

In it, we argued that more evidence on the impact on people on low incomes is needed before any new fees are introduced.

What you need to know

1. Justice questions: deserts, closed courts, and SLAPPs

Legal aid, court backlogs, and Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) were all raised by MPs at Justice Questions on Tuesday last week (26 March).

Labour MP Keir Mather highlighted that we had identified his constituency as a legal advice desert for housing and education legal aid, and asked the government how this would be fixed. 

Justice minister Mike Freer said provision is kept under review and offered to write to Mather with more details of how money is spent.

On a similar theme, Labour MP Andy Slaughter asked why the review of civil legal aid had been “kicked into the long grass”, despite rates having been cut in half since 1996. 

Freer said he wanted to take the time needed to get the review right and added that he is working with ourselves and other bodies on the review.

Turning to backlogs in the Crown Court, MPs criticised the closure of Sheffield Crown Court due to flooding and asked what plans there are to deal with these unplanned losses of courtrooms. 

The lord chancellor, Alex Chalk, said one of the first things he did in the role was secure extra money for court repairs.

Finally, a question was raised about recent legislation to address the use of SLAPPs. 

Labour MP Alex Davies-Jones welcomed the bill but said there are issues with the use of subjective tests and the narrow definition of public interest. 

The lord chancellor said he is looking at amendments to these aspects and hoped they would be addressed when the bill begins its committee stage.

2. Legal aid value for money probed by MPs

Senior Ministry of Justice (MoJ) civil servants, including permanent secretary Antonia Romeo, appeared before the Public Accounts Committee to give evidence about value for money of legal aid on Monday (25 March). 

MPs questioned the officials on legal aid spending following a National Audit Office (NAO) report, which raised concerns about sustainability and access to legal aid.

Ahead of the session, our president wrote about the dire straits facing both criminal and civil legal aid.

The Committee was keen to understand how gaps in provision could be filled across the system. 

Jane Harbottle, CEO of the Legal Aid Agency, explained that legal aid contract managers look at long-term sustainability and the challenges facing firms. Where provision is lacking, they can merge schemes or carry out a contract tender to fill the gaps.

MPs asked why it had taken so long for civil and criminal legal aid rates to be reviewed given the pressures on the system. 

Romeo outlined cash injections that had been given to criminal legal aid and said that in civil legal aid they are working towards a July green paper setting out policy options. She could not confirm if increasing rates would be part of this.

Sir Bob Neill – the Justice Committee chair, who was invited to join the committee session – asked whether there is a mechanism to uplift criminal legal aid rates annually. 

Romeo pointed to the Criminal Legal Aid Advisory Board, which we are a member of, and said it could look at this.

3. Prime minister grilled on MoJ funding and Rwanda

On Tuesday (26 March) prime minister Rishi Sunak gave oral evidence before the Liaison Committee – a parliamentary committee comprising the chairs of all major select committees. 

Among a number of issues raised were funding for the justice system, court backlogs and the Safety of Rwanda Bill. 

The chair of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Bob Neill (Conservative), asserted that proper funding is needed to reduce record levels of delays in the courts. 

Sunak answered that the government has funded 100,000 sitting days this and next financial year, and has also leaned on 20 nightingale courtrooms, but he accepted that there are pressures.

Sir Bob pushed further, raising the point that, as an unprotected department, the MoJ is likely to see cuts of 2.3% between 2025/26 and 2027/28. 

He highlighted that the MoJ is often a downstream department dealing with the failures in other areas such as education, mental health and drug treatment, and asked what is being done to create a joined-up approach. 

Sunak did not answer this point specifically, but instead spoke of engagements to improve judicial processing.

The chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Dame Diana Johnson (Labour), moved on to ask if the prime minister agrees that there is a moral basis for excluding those who helped the UK militarily from the Rwanda scheme. 

Sunak replied that there are existing routes for military people who have helped the UK. Dame Diana rebutted that the most populous group of people crossing in small boats are from Afghanistan, so these routes are not working. 

The chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Joanna Cherry (SNP), highlighted her Committee’s conclusion that Rwanda does not adhere to international obligations. 

Cherry went on to mention the Home Office’s move to prepare information on Rwanda for removed individuals which highlights grave concerns on human rights. 

She therefore asked if the prime minister was inclined to ignore advice from his own Home Office to assert that Rwanda is a safe country. Sunak responded that the new treaty signed with the Rwandan government will ensure protections for people removed to the African country.

She also highlighted Home Office advice stating that LGBT people could be subject to discrimination in Rwanda. Sunak responded that the nation’s constitution includes protections against discrimination and the UK’s new treaty contains further protections against discrimination.

4. Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill arrives in the Lords

On Wednesday (27 March) the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill had its first debate in the House of Lords after moving out of the Commons.

The bill was met with relative support by the opposition benches, with little to no criticism for efforts to increase transparency for prospective leaseholders, end forfeiture, give greater rights to manage for leaseholders, and scrap the presumption that leaseholders must pay their freeholders’ legal costs.

However, Labour spokesperson Baroness Taylor outlined Labour’s frustration at the lack of ambition to follow through with an abolition of the leasehold system. 

She argued that “we hope to persuade the government to rethink [its] decision not to extend the ban on leasehold to flats; 70% of leaseholders live in flats. To leave out new flats from the ban on leasehold justifies my description of an eviscerated bill because it means that the bill simply will not do what it set out to do”. 

Labour announced it would be tabling several amendments to strengthen provisions in the bill towards this overall goal. 

Liberal Democrat spokesperson Baroness Thornhill gave support to the bill while also noting its shortcomings.

She added: “This system is so ingrained in our history that there is inevitably going to be a chasm between the secretary of state’s theatrical rhetoric and harsh reality. There are also going to be winners and losers”. 

Baroness Andrews (Labour) delivered a further blow with her remarks on the lack of parliamentary time given to consider such wide ranging reforms. She explained: “I say very gently to the minister, because I know she is not responsible, that if the government had not distracted both Houses with legislation such as the Rwanda Bill, then we might have had more legislative time. 

“There certainly would have been more time to consider, for example, the proposition made by the noble Lord, Lord Best, about introducing a regulator, or addressing the impact on building safety.”

On ground rent, the government highlighted its consultation on the capping of existing ground rents, but did not give a specific timeline for publishing its response.

Labour tried to push the government to commit to publishing before the bill gains royal assent, but to no avail. 

Lord Best (Crossbench) highlighted the lack of provisions in the bill to create a regulator of property agents. 

He noted the cross-party support for such measures as a method of “raising standards and rooting out bad practice in this sector”. 

The government reiterated its support for driving up professionalism and standards amongst property agents, but stated that there simply isn’t the additional legislative time required in the remainder of this Parliament.

The bill will now begin its committee stage on 22 April, where specific amendments will begin to be discussed and introduced.

Coming up

Parliament has gone into recess for Easter, and will return on 15 April.

We are working on a number of bills in parliament:

If you made it this far

Read our response to the government's international comparator report examining civil legal aid delivery across six other countries.

President Nick Emmerson welcomes the report but presses the government to acknowledge where investment is needed to stave off further deterioration in the sector.

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