Westminster update: Law Society calls for accessible legal aid

Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
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One thing you need to do

Read our warning that housing legal aid is increasingly out of reach as housing repossessions rise.

Quarterly figures from the Ministry of Justice for January to March 2023 show that mortgage possessions increased by 40%.

Landlord possessions (evictions) increased by 23% compared to the same quarter last year.

We welcome the ongoing review of civil legal aid, but unless we see significant and immediate investment across the legal aid system including in housing, more legal aid schemes will collapse leaving people without help when they need it.

Read our response

What you need to know

1. Victims and Prisoners Bill: Law Society pushes for accessible legal aid

Our calls for victims in inquests to have access to legal aid were raised as MPs debated the Victims and Prisoners Bill during its second reading on Monday 15 May.

The bill will make changes to parole, create a new Independent Public Advocate (IPA) and enshrine new support for victims in law.

Conservative MP Rob Butler highlighted our position that victims in inquests where an IPA is involved, like the Grenfell Tower fire, should be eligible for legal aid, which he said he had “some sympathy” for.

The chair of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Bob Neill, raised a similar point, arguing that there is a question of equality of arms between bereaved families at inquests and public authorities who will have legal representation.

More alarmingly, the bill will give the secretary of state powers to intervene in parole decisions involving serious offenders.

The shadow lord chancellor, Steve Reed, argued that these powers risk politicising decisions that should be based on “robust professional experience”.

We argued these changes pose a serious threat to access to justice and the principle that decisions about liberty should be made by the judiciary.

The lord chancellor, Alex Chalk, also confirmed that the government will be bringing forward an amendment to block third party material requests in rape and sexual assault investigations, so there would be no routine access to therapy notes.

We will be examining the amendment carefully once it is published.

The bill passed its second reading and will now begin its committee stage in the coming weeks.

2. Justice Questions: MP calls on lord chancellor to meet Law Society

Alex Chalk, the new lord chancellor, took part in his first Justice Questions in parliament on Tuesday 16 May following his appointment last month.

Sir Bob Neill, chair of the Justice Select Committee, set out what he believed were the challenges facing the new secretary of state, including meeting with us to discuss criminal legal aid and creating an efficient courts system, while encouraging the lord chancellor to drop unnecessary reforms of human rights law.

The lord chancellor said these were powerful points that were “very much in mind”.

We recently had an introductory call with the lord chancellor and look forward to working with him.

The shadow courts minister, Alex Cunningham, quoted Law Society president Lubna Shuja’s remarks on the Crown Court backlog that “the data cuts through the rhetoric and clearly shows that delays in the criminal justice system aren’t coming down anytime soon”.

Justice minister Mike Freer said that figures for June will show the case load is coming down.

He also pointed to more judges being appointed this and next year, while uncapped sitting days and Nightingale courts are all improving access to justice.

Turning to the rule of law, the SNP’s justice spokesperson, Stuart C McDonald, highlighted our warning that the Illegal Migration Bill has serious implications for the UK’s standing as a country that upholds the rule of law.

Chalk replied that the rule of law is essential to “who we are as a nation”, but for those who break the law, which he argued includes those who arrive illegally in the UK, there must be consequences, or the rule of law will be brought into disrepute.

3. Retained EU Law Bill: revocation schedule scrutiny

The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill had its report stage in the House of Lords over two days on Monday 15 and Wednesday 17 May.

The main development was the introduction of an amendment, announced last week, to remove the sunset clause and replace it with a list of retained EU laws to be repealed.

This was a change we had been calling for and have welcomed.

Nonetheless, we continue to highlight the need to allow time for proper scrutiny of the laws set to be repealed by the bill.

The government has since published a full list of the 587 pieces of retained EU law scheduled to be revoked at the end of 2023, subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

The majority of these relate to environmental regulation. Peers were particularly concerned about protecting air and water quality assurances, as well as strengthening legislation that aims to prevent flooding.

Peers from across the political spectrum found the lack of time dedicated to considering the latest set of government amendments concerning, with calls for a longer report stage coming from all sides.

The bill moves to third reading on Monday before heading back to the Commons for MPs to debate the changes made in the Lords.

Expect frustration from the Conservative right as they argue over the hugely reduced number of laws on the revocation schedule.

Secretary of state for business and trade Kemi Badenoch will again defend the amendments in the Commons in what is likely to be a lively debate this Wednesday.

View the amended bill

Coming up

We will be working closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills and inquiries:

If you made it this far...

Read our briefing for the Illegal Migration Bill.

The bill brings forward a range of comprehensive restrictions on asylum claims from those arriving in the UK by unofficial routes.

The briefing contains our views on the following areas, where we have repeatedly raised our concerns:

  • non-compliance with international law
  • access to justice
  • unworkability

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