Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
One thing you need to do
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Five things you need to know
1. Coronavirus update
The coronavirus crisis continues to change how the profession operates, presenting many and varied challenges to access to justice and the rule of law.
Small law firms play a crucial role in providing advice to vulnerable people struggling with stressful legal issues during these difficult times – yet cash flow pressures and reduced fee income has put many at risk of collapse. This week we have highlighted the plight of small firms.
We've been pushing government to give further support for legal aid firms and to support firms with business rates. We will continue to press for changes in these areas.
Elsewhere this week, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has confirmed that solicitors recognised as key workers are eligible for coronavirus (COVID-19) testing.
In addition, HM Land Registry has responded to our concerns and announced that it will accept the ‘Mercury’ signing approach for deeds from Monday 4 May.
2. Domestic Abuse Bill
Last Tuesday the Domestic Abuse Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons.
We briefed ahead of the debate, and we were mentioned by the chair of the Justice Select Committee Sir Bob Neill MP, who spoke about our call to extend the prohibition of cross-examination to cover examination-in-chief as well.
Opening the debate on the Bill, lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC MP noted evidence that domestic abuse had become more prevalent as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. He committed to responding “promptly” to the Home Affairs Committee’s report on domestic abuse during the coronavirus crisis, which had been published the previous day. He spoke about the purpose of the Bill, which was designed to strengthen “protection and support for victims in the longer term” through higher awareness of the crime, better protection and support for victims and their families and changes to the criminal, civil, and family justice systems regarding the matter.
Speaking for the Opposition, shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds MP said that the Opposition supported the Bill. He urged the government to engage with charities working in the sector. He welcomed a statutory definition of domestic abuse and new protection orders and notices, and spoke of the importance of greater protection for victims post-separation from a partner.
The Bill will now progress to Committee Stage, where the bill will be considered line-by-line and any proposed amendments will be reviewed. At present, no date for the commencement of Committee Stage has been announced.
3. Lord chancellor discusses domestic abuse during the coronavirus pandemic
Last Monday, lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC MP answered justice oral questions in the House of Commons on behalf of the government.
Shadow victims and youth justice minister Peter Kyle MP said rates of domestic violence have increased significantly since lockdown measures were imposed. He recognised that the government had started to make preparations on a strategy to keep people safe in their homes and asked the lord chancellor how successful the strategy had been, and what the government would be doing in the next few weeks to keep people safe.
Responding, Buckland said the Domestic Abuse Bill will be having its second reading the following day (28 April), and that as a result of the recent announcement of the £5bn Covid-19 fund and the £750m Charity Support fund, an additional £600,000 will be allocated to the expansion and national rollout of digital and helpline services. He said that he was glad to note that the police are pursuing an increased number of domestic abuse cases, and that the government is in direct discussion with them to ensure that the court system is able to deal with these cases quickly and that victims can be supported. He said the government was there for victims of domestic abuse, and that the message for them is ‘you are not alone.’
Responding to a question from Andrew Bowie MP (Conservative), Buckland said that Covid-19 poses an unprecedented challenge to the justice system, but that the MoJ has successfully implemented contingency plans, including within the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the criminal courts, to ensure that justice can continue to be administered. He said that important cases such as custody hearings continue to happen, that physical hearings have been consolidated into a smaller number of open courts and that additional cleaning measures have been put into place. He also said that he is in regular contact with the Attorney General and the National Criminal Justice Board, who have set up a strategic command to oversee the Government’s response.
4. Attorney general answers questions in the Commons
Last Tuesday, the Law Officers responded to attorney general questions in the House of Commons. The session focused on the impacts of Covid-19, with topics raised including the effectiveness of the CPS and court system, rise in domestic abuse, pro bono work, fraud and civil liberties.
On a question around pro bono, the solicitor general stated that: “we know that the legal community rallies admirably to support victims in their hour of need. The Covid-19 pandemic is no exception, and I want to encourage lawyers to do as much as they can in that regard.”
Pro bono work
John Lamont MP (Conservative) and Sarah Atherton MP (Conservative) asked what steps the solicitor general has taken to support pro bono work by lawyers. Responding, solicitor general Michael Ellis QC MP said that he regularly engaged directly with the work of pro bono stakeholders. He said that Covid-19 has affected all frontline services, including the pro bono sector, and that he applauded the efforts of law clinics and pro bono services who are continuing to provide advice.
Following, Lamont asked whether the solicitor general agreed that more needs to be done to promote greater awareness among the public about the legal services that are on offer. Responding, Ellis said that this was absolutely the case, and that “it is of the utmost importance that members of the public are aware of their rights and responsibilities, as well as the rights of other citizens; this builds confidence and the skills needed to deal with disputes, and ensures that everyone has access to justice.”
Atherton asked whether the solicitor general felt that the government should incentivise smaller legal firms to undertake pro bono work. Ellis replied that he did, and that he encouraged all firms of any size to take part. He continued: “we know that the legal community rallies admirably to support victims in their hour of need. The Covid-19 pandemic is no exception, and I want to encourage lawyers to do as much as they can in that regard.”
Shadow attorney general Ellie Reeves MP said that before the pandemic the publicly funded legal sector was on its knees due to cuts to legal aid made under LASPO, and this had hindered not only pro bono work, but access to advice and representation. She asked whether the Law Officers would commit to reversing LASPO. Responding, Ellis said that the government continues to prioritise legal aid for the matters that need it most and that the Law Officers recognise that pro bono work is an adjunct to, not substitute for, legal aid funding.
Effectiveness of the CPS and court system
William Wragg MP (Conservative) asked what assessment the attorney general has made of the effectiveness of the CPS during the Covid-19 outbreak. Responding, attorney general Suella Braverman QC MP thanked the CPS and the wider justice system for their work during this time. She said that CPS staff are playing a full part in supporting the justice system through use of more technology, increased collaboration, and planning for recovery.
Wragg asked how the CPS is working with the courts to manage the impact of Covid-19 and particularly to support them in planning for recovery. The attorney general said there has been very effective cooperation between the CPS and other partners, including the judiciary and the courts, to ensure that practical arrangements are put in place so that the justice system continues to function as far as possible. She said the CPS is also working with partners to explore options for recovery, including the possibility of a phased recovery.
Robert Largan MP (Conservative) asked what steps the government is taking to ensure that the current crisis does not lead to substantial court backlogs. Braverman said that the Coronavirus Act 2020 allows the use of digital and video technology to hear cases during the crisis, and that the CPS is working with the judiciary on the listing of cases, so that those which can be dealt with via guilty plea are prioritised. She said this will “go some way towards clearing the backlog in the system.”
Kerry McCarthy MP (Lab) asked what discussions the attorney general has had with the director of public prosecutions on CPS management of people remanded on bail during the Covid-19 outbreak. Braverman replied the government’s approach is to ensure that the most dangerous offenders are dealt with as a priority. She said that all cases with an approaching trial date, including bail cases, are under review to ensure that serious and time-sensitive cases are prioritised and that bail conditions remain suitable.
5. Committee hears evidence from Chief Secretary to the Treasury
Last Wednesday, chief secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay MP appeared before the Treasury Select Committee as part of their inquiry into coronavirus, alongside Katharine Braddick, the Treasury director general for financial services and Beth Russell, Treasury director general for tax and welfare.
Chair Mel Stride MP (Conservative) asked about issues with the furlough scheme for self-employed people who work through their own limited liability company, and the problems for those who pay themselves through dividends. Barclay said that there was a balance between speed of measures and capability, and drew attention to the breadth and size of the business and employment support packages, arguing that if you don’t qualify for one, you will probably qualify for others.
When asked about whether the Treasury had considered a claim based on the self-employed dividends incomes, Barclay said it had been considered but there is the risk of fraud with this system. Beth Russell said they are looking at proposals where the money is paid out on a claim, not verified up front and clawed back later. However she noted the fraud risk and error risk as its difficult for some people to work out themselves what dividends relate to their business versus other dividend income. Russell noted that a separate scheme would need to be set up which is very different to what is already in place. Stride then asked Russell to write to the Committee to let them know the kind of proposals they are considering.
Julie Marson MP (Conservative) asked how many of the new bounce-back loans will be made available overall, and over the next critical period. Barclay said these will become available on Monday, and that he expects demand will be high. Marson asked whether many firms will transfer from the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans. Barclay said this is possible, and he expects it to happen. He said the loan was interest-free for 12 months, at which it will then experience a low interest rate, but was not able to clarify what this would be. On the large business interruption loan scheme, Barclay said that it was as yet unclear how many loans have been made.
Coming up this week
This week, senior representatives from the Law Society will be giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee on Monday on the impact of coronavirus on the courts and the legal profession.
In the House of Commons, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and Home Affairs Committees will both continue their inquiries into the impacts of coronavirus, while the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will answer oral questions.
In the House of Lords, Tuesday will see oral questions on addressing incidents of domestic violence during the pandemic.
If you made it this far
The current lockdown has changed the way legal services are delivered. These changes have presented an opportunity for cyber-criminals and fraudsters. The home secretary has reported that cases of fraud and scams have increased significantly since lockdown.
We've published a new COVID-19 cybersecurity, fraud prevention and lawtech hub to support solicitors and law firms to prevent fraud and scams, safely deliver legal services online and run their organisations effectively by using legal technology.