Westminster update: highlights from 2023

An annual report on the Law Society public affairs team's successes across Parliament and Whitehall.

1. Fighting for a sustainable justice system

As ever, it has been a busy year for the Law Society as we continue to fight to make sure justice is accessible to everyone.

Over the past 12 months, we have campaigned strongly for a sustainable legal aid system. MPs have regularly questioned the government citing our research and analysis of the crisis facing legal aid solicitors.

Our immediate past president, Lubna Shuja gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee on the future of legal aid, setting out the crisis facing the civil and criminal spheres, while putting forward the steps that need to be taken to put the system on a sustainable footing.

We will continue to make the case for why criminal legal aid is critical to a functioning justice system and look forward to hearing the judgment on our judicial review of the government’s decision not to implement the findings of the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid early next year.

We have also been an influential voice on the state of the courts.

At the start of 2023, we saw extensive coverage of our five point plan to fix the courts backlog, which put forward a blueprint to get the courts system firing on all cylinders by funding legal aid, providing resources for court repairs and taking a better approach to data collection.

MPs discussed the report in Parliament, with the minister for justice Mike Freer noting he had seen the plan.

We have also worked hard to influence a number of pieces of legislation passing through Parliament.

We gave evidence to the Committee examining the National Security Act during its passage to push back against restrictions to civil legal aid within the legislation, outlined shortages of housing legal aid and backlogs in the court as part of the Committee Stage of the Renters Reform Bill and have been briefing MPs on the Criminal Justice Bill, currently before Parliament.

2. Influencing the Economic Crime Act

This year saw the passing of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act, a huge piece of legislation which will:

  • reform Companies House
  • impact the register of overseas entities
  • make provisions around trusts, SLAPPs, and a range of other measures which will impact the legal sector

We had a positive result on the new regulatory objective for legal services which was added to the Bill.

The government initially aimed to create a broad and non-specified objective for lawyers to prevent economic crime.

Our lobbying efforts were successful in pushing the government on this new regulatory objective to narrowly define the scope and intention of the legislation for regulators.

After careful engagement from the Law Society, we were pleased to see clarification by Lord Bellamy which will act as guidance for the SRA and other regulators.

3. The proposed Bill of Rights

At the beginning of the 2023, the previous lord chancellor Dominic Raab MP was keen to force through his controversial Bill of Rights Bill.

The bill threatened the current balance of our human rights laws, both domestic and international. It also looked to give the lord chancellor inappropriate sweeping powers.

After a long and continuous campaign, which included direct engagement with MPs to sow seeds of doubt about the legislation, the Law Society successfully saw off the bill, which was officially scrapped in June.

4. The Illegal Migration Act

Another previous secretary of state, former home secretary Suella Braverman, was also one to bring in legislation this year which undermined the rule of law.

The Law Society contends that her Illegal Migration Act is incompatible with international law, including the European Convention on Human Rights, the United Nations Refugee Convention, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The act will also obstruct access to justice for all individuals who arrive by unofficial routes.

A legal aid provision was introduced to the act at report stage in the House of Commons. However, it only ensures that provision of civil legal services to a person in receipt of a removal notice is in scope of legal aid.

After careful lobbying, the Law Society succeeded in convincing the lord chancellor that careful consideration was needed in terms of legal aid provisions, and a government consultation on immigration legal aid rates was duly provided.

5. Rwandan legislation

Towards the end of the year, the Law Society’s was again concerned by immigration legislation being introduced.

The proposed legislation on Rwanda sets a dangerous legal and constitutional precedent by legislating to overturn an evidence-based finding of fact by the UK’s highest court.

Clause 2 of the bill dictates that UK courts must treat Rwanda as a safe country, whether that is true on the ground or not. Indeed, this obligation is in direct contradiction of the evidence-based finding of fact made by the Supreme Court, the highest Court in the United Kingdom. Simply put, the Supreme Court found Rwanda to not be a safe country; legislating the reverse will not change the situation on the ground.

The bill will also obstruct access to justice for all individuals who assert that they would be unsafe in Rwanda. It inverts a fundamental principle of British justice by ousting the courts’ jurisdiction and preventing individuals from accessing certain legal protections, individual liberties, and human rights.

Once again, the Law Society are organising a comprehensive campaign against the emergency legislation, as we urge the Government to reconsider its position. We hope to stave off the bill, or, at least, its most concerning elements.

Coming up in 2024:

The Law Society is working on a number of bills in Parliament:

Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill will begin its committee stage in the Commons, date to be announced.

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.

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

Investigative Powers (Amendment) Bill will begin its report stage in the Lords on 23 January.

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 begin 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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