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Westminster update: furlough deadline and return to the office toolkit
Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
One thing you need to do
The deadline for using the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is Wednesday 10 June. Make sure you read our updated guidance on furloughing ahead of the deadline.
Five things you need to know
1. Coronavirus latest
Law Society calls for urgent action on legal aid
Last Monday, we warned that as a result of coronavirus, legal aid firms risk collapse without urgent action from the government.
Our president Simon Davis wrote for the Law Society Gazette highlighting the difficult decisions facing legal aid providers as they struggle with a short-term drop in demand.
While our conversations with the government indicate that they have an understanding of the gravity of the situation, it's clear that urgent action is required to provide further support.
Furlough scheme deadline for new entrants
The government’s furlough scheme, the Job Retention Scheme, will close to new entrants on Wednesday 10 June. If your firm is considering taking advantage of the scheme in the future, including the new arrangements for part-time furloughing, relevant employees must be entered into the scheme by that deadline.
We've updated our guidance on the furlough scheme and published new FAQs including some scenarios which firms may experience.
This Tuesday we'll be holding a webinar on the latest changes to the Job Retention Scheme and what it means for law firms.
Law Society provides toolkit for return to the office
As the government begins to lift restrictions and solicitors slowly return to the office in the coming weeks, firms will need to be prepared and to have taken all necessary steps to ensure their offices are safe.
We've published a return to the office toolkit, focused on providing practical steps that you can take in line with government guidance, complete with everything from template risk assessments to downloadable materials to display in your offices.
It's important that firms begin now to consult with staff and complete the necessary risk assessments to ensure that everything is in place when your firm is able to return to the office.
2. Attorney general faces questions in the Commons
Last Thursday the attorney general and solicitor general answered questions in a socially distanced House of Commons. The session largely focused on the prosecution of assaults on emergency service workers, virtual hearings, and support for law firms.
Catherine West (Labour) asked what the government is doing to help hard-pressed legal aid lawyers who need more flexibility with their billing or business rates relief to keep going.
The solicitor general responded by noting that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has made changes to its systems for paying fees to advocates to help support them during this difficult time. He noted there is always more that can be done to relieve financial pressure, and the Ministry of Justice is working closely with legal practitioners to understand the impact of COVID-19 and streamlining the process for financial payments.
The shadow solicitor general, Ellie Reeves, spoke about the inequalities facing the BAME legal community and asked whether the government would reverse the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act and restore funds to legal aid.
The solicitor general in response said that the government is expediting outstanding fee schemes where payments need to be made more quickly than normal; has reduced the stage lengths before payments are made in the cases that are ongoing; and has concluded main hearings and ongoing cases and made payment before hearings have been concluded. He said a series of measures are being taken to assist all branches of the legal profession, including payments of up-front fixed fees of £500 for COVID-19 matters.
The solicitor general also answered a number of questions on virtual hearings and participation in these hearings by vulnerable witnesses, defendants and victims, including those with hearing impairments.
The solicitor general said the CPS is working closely with the Courts and Tribunals Service and interpreters to ensure that victims, witnesses and defendants with hearing impairments of any sort can properly participate in virtual proceedings. He also stated vulnerable witnesses are entitled to a range of special measures already, which are being utilised and are still in operation during this outbreak.
The solicitor general said the CPS will engage in evaluation exercises to assess the impact of video hearings. He said that work is ongoing with the CPS, cross-government partners and stakeholders to contribute to planning on recovery and clearing the backlog in the courts.
3. Private International Law Bill considered at committee stage
Last Wednesday saw the second sitting of the Lords Committee Stage of the Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill.
We briefed before first sitting, and Amendment 20 was in line with one of our key asks on scrutiny of new international agreements.
Labour had tabled several amendments removing the power of the regulation-making authority to create, amend or extend a criminal offence; and ensuring regulation-making power should be subject to the super-affirmative resolution procedure and consultation with the lord chancellor’s advisory committee and the Lords EU Select Committee.
Shadow attorney general Lord Falconer restated his opposition to the broad order-making powers in the Bill, and said that the amendments were for probing purposes, and that he opposes the scale of the powers in principle even with a super-affirmative procedure.
He went on to say that the “Lord Chancellor’s advisory committee on private international law has been an important source of advice over a long period to the Lord Chancellor and the Ministry of Justice on private international law agreements” and that not consulting regarding various SIs introduced under the Withdrawal Act regarding private international law “led to a great loss” in preparing these SIs.
He pressed the minister for an undertaking that the advisory committee and Lords EU committee would be consulted in any subsequent changes in private international law.
Amendment 19 was withdrawn and amendments 20 and 21 were not moved, so the Bill passes to report stage without amendment.
4. Corporate Governance and Insolvency Bill passes the Commons
Last Wednesday the Corporate Governance and Insolvency Bill received all its remaining stages in the Commons. We briefed before the debates.
Opening for the government, business secretary Alok Sharma said that the intention of the Bill was to provide “further support” for businesses, in the form of non-fiscal measures.
He said it would “allow business owners time and space to explore rescue options” and “allow directors of companies that are technically insolvent, but simply because of a temporary drop in demand caused by the COVID-19 crisis, to proceed with the business without the threat of personal liability.”
He went on to say the Bill has been “welcomed across the board by business representatives’ organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, R3—the insolvency and restructuring professionals trade association—and the Trades Union Congress.”
Sharma said measures in the Bill would give company directors “the confidence to use their best efforts to continue trading without the threat of personal liability, should the company ultimately go into insolvency.”
Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said the opposition believes that “the suspension of personal liability for wrongful trading while insolvent makes sense as a measure, but for a strictly time-limited period. It is important, as I think is clear, that other duties continue to apply to directors.”
Speaking on the moratorium, Sharma said there are “significant safeguards and protections for creditors, which is right and proper. The plan must be sanctioned by the court and, indeed, any dissenting creditor class bound to a plan must not be made worse off than it would have been in the next most likely outcome.”
5. Lords press for details of Royal Commission on criminal justice
Last Wednesday an oral question took place in the House of Lords regarding the Royal Commission on criminal justice.
Lord Ramsbotham (Crossbencher) asked when the government will announce the chair, the timings and the terms of reference of the Royal Commission, and whether the Commission will learn any lessons from the current crisis.
Responding, advocate-general for Scotland and Lords justice minister Lord Keen of Elie said that the Commission will be an important opportunity to address the key issues affecting the criminal justice system. The scope, terms of reference and membership of the Commission are being addressed, and it will take into account any lessons learned in dealing with the current crisis.
Lord Garnier (Conservative) noted the strain on the criminal justice system caused by the current crisis and the growing backlog of criminal trials. He asked whether the government will ensure that lawyers who do publicly funded criminal law cases are paid a decent wage.
Responding, Lord Keen said “the criminal justice system faces challenges, which is why this Royal Commission is so important.”
Baroness Butler-Sloss (Crossbencher) asked whether the Commission membership will include judges, barristers and solicitors.
Responding, Lord Keen said that the membership is yet to be determined but he is “confident that there will be appropriate representation of the legal profession, as there has been with previous royal commissions looking at criminal justice.”
Shadow attorney general Lord Falconer asked about government plans to relieve the pressure on the criminal justice system caused by coronavirus ahead of the Royal Commission.
Responding, Lord Keen said that the judiciary have been looking at the ability to continue criminal trials remotely.
Lord Dholakia (Liberal Democrat) asked whether the Commission will work with the Police Foundation regarding their strategic review of policing. Responding, Lord Keen said that prosecution will be part of the Commission’s mandate, and that it will accept submissions.
Coming up this week
On Thursday 11 June our president Simon Davis will be giving oral evidence to the EU Services Sub-Committee session on the future UK-EU relationship on professional and business services.
This week will see the second reading for two bills in the House of Commons. The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill will have its second reading on Monday, while the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill will be debated on Tuesday.
Tuesday will also see Justice Questions in the House of Commons, while two further bills - the Domestic Abuse Bill and the Immigration and Social Security Coordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill - will be considered at committee stage throughout the week.
Having passed through the Commons this week, the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill will have its second reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday, and on Wednesday the Constitution Committee will be taking evidence on the constitutional implications of COVID-19.
If you made it this far
Are you ready to return to the office? Read our latest guidance and our handy toolkit, including a template risk assessment.