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Westminster update: Law Society concerns on economic crime levy raised by SNP

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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1. Concerns on economic crime levy raised by SNP

Tuesday (16 November) saw the Finance Bill receive its second reading in the House of Commons. The Law Society briefed ahead of the debate, focussing on our concerns around the economic crime levy.

Alison Thewliss, the SNP’s Treasury spokesperson, quoted our concerns that the levy functions as an “additional tax” and does not abide by the “polluter pays” principle.

She listed these amongst her reasons for unease on how the levy will work in practice, “because placing more of a burden on businesses might not exactly have the desired effect”.

She also referred to concerns from the Association of British Insurers, and argued that this is an area where more evidence needs to be taken to ensure the government understands the likely effect of the measures.

She encouraged the government to “take heed” of the Treasury Committee’s report on economic crime, and argued that: 

“By tightening up company registration, giving Companies House AML responsibilities – as they should have – increasing the comically low fee for company registration and actually enforcing their own laws, the Government could bring in much more money and lose less of it through the complex schemes that Companies House currently facilitates.”

The Labour Party spoke in support of the principle behind the economic crime levy. Exchequer Secretary Helen Whately, speaking for the government, argued the levy is “a proportionate measure” and is part of the government’s efforts to “safeguard the UK’s global reputation as a safe and transparent place to conduct business”.

Read the transcript

2. Lord Chief Justice appears before Justice Select Committee

Tuesday (16 November) saw the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, give evidence to the Justice Select Committee.

MPs questioned him on legal aid, the courts backlogs and judicial diversity. Lord Burnett noted that there is a shortage of criminal practitioners due to the reduction in remuneration over the last few years. He highlighted the Law Society’s solicitor duty heatmap showing the average age of criminal solicitors and legal aid desert maps as evidence of the scale of this shortage.

The Lord Chief Justice expressed hope that this issue could be addressed through the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid, which will be reporting to the government soon.

On the courts backlog, the Lord Chief Justice called for more judicial capacity and for enough money to be made available for the courts to sit as required to lower the backlog.

He also noted the impact maintenance issues had on the backlog, an issue the Law Society highlighted in our response to the government’s spending review, and described the state of some court buildings as “an embarrassment”.

Finally, asked about how to increase judicial diversity, Lord Burnett highlighted the work being done by the Judicial Diversity Forum, noting that the Law Society is a member and recognising the work being done by the professions to improve diversity and inclusion. He also said that though diversity was improving in the judiciary, this is happening too slowly.

Watch the session

View our criminal duty solicitor heatmap

3. Lords committee report reflects Law Society asks on CPTPP

On Wednesday (17 November), the House of Lords International Agreements Committee published a report on the government’s negotiating objectives for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), drawing on written and oral evidence from the Law Society.

The report notes that this is the first time a parliamentary committee has reported on the negotiating objectives for a post-Brexit trade agreement, and says that this reflects the Committee’s “strong commitment to ensuring parliament is given an opportunity to discuss and inform the progress of trade negotiations”.

Our main assessment of accession to the CPTPP – welcoming the step but acknowledging it will do little for the profession in the short term – was reflected in the findings of the report. Our evidence was quoted directly, observing that our “aims are unlikely to be realised”, although the context that this assessment was based on the short term was not included.

International Policy Adviser Catherine Brims, who appeared before the committee in March 2021, made observations that were reflected more fully in the report – mainly that the Professional Services Working Group of CPTPP could give the UK a seat at the table in driving improvements in the liberalisation of trade in legal services and that CPTPP provides mechanisms to address behind-the-border barriers in the professional services Annex 10A.

These points were reflected in the Committee’s recommendation that “the Government should pursue the opportunities for the UK financial, legal and related professional services by using the mechanisms available through CPTPP to establish regulatory dialogue and to shape future rules in the region”.

Another issue we raised with the committee – that CPTPP rules directly conflict with the European Patent Convention and accepting them could jeopardise the UK’s continued membership of the European Patent Office – was acknowledged by the report, and also raised with the government by the Committee ahead of publication.

Read the report

4. Prime Minister questioned by Liaison Committee

On Wednesday (17 November), the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was questioned on the work of the government by the Liaison Committee, made up of each of the House of Common’s select committee chairs.

Sir Bob Neill, chair of the Justice Select Committee, asked about the importance of funding defence practitioners properly to avoid delays in the courts system and the contribution this could make to victim attrition.

The Prime Minister acknowledged his “utmost esteem for the legal profession” and highlighted the government’s rollout of Nightingale Courts and cloud video platforms to boost court capacity. Johnson also committed to studying the review of criminal legal aid being led by Sir Christopher Bellamy and lauded the additional funding for the Ministry of Justice announced in the spending review.

Sir Bob also asked what more was being done to invest in investigation of rape offences. Johnson said that £85m had been invested in the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to make prosecutions more efficient. He also argued that the CPS and police need to be working hand in glove from the outset of a case, rather than “passing the buck” between them.

Watch the session

5. Peers examine the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill continued its committee stage in the House of Lords this week, with peers debating provisions within the bill on remote juries on Wednesday (19 November). The Law Society is concerned about the impact this measure could have on access to justice and briefed peers ahead of the debate.

Lord Pannick (Crossbench) argued that allowing juries to hear cases remotely could limit judicial oversight over juries and could also impact their ability to review the body language of a defendant or witness in a case.

Lord Judge (Crossbench) echoed these objections and argued that if the government had no intention of bringing in these measures, as it has said, then the powers should not be necessary.

Responding for the government, the Justice Minister Lord Wolfson of Tredegar reiterated that there is no intention of making remote juries a regular feature of the justice system, and that the powers are purely intended to help future proof the courts system against another pandemic and technological progress.

Peers also discussed the provisions within the bill on remote hearings, with Lord Ponsonby (Labour) moving his amendments to prevent the use of live links involving children under the age of 18 and to require health screening for defendants involved in remote hearings.

Lord Wolfson argued that on both these measures there were already sufficient protections within the bill and it would be for a court to decide if a remote hearing is in the interests of justice. The amendments were not pushed to a vote.

Read the transcript

6. Environment Act receives royal assent

The Environment Act received royal assent and passed into law last week after the Commons and Lords reached an agreement on key provisions.

During a debate on 8 November, the House of Commons rejected the Lords’ Amendment 31C, which the Law Society had supported, and insisted instead on its previous Amendments 31A and 31B.

The House of Lords agreed to these amendments the following day and they became part of the Act. Amendments 31A and 31B provide for parliamentary oversight of any guidance issued by the Government to the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), but retain the Secretary of State’s sole authority to make appointments to the OEP.

The House of Commons also voted to reject the Lords’ Amendment 33B, which would have removed tests restricting the courts’ ability to apply remedies in environmental review cases where doing so would harm third parties or be detrimental to good administration, and instead proposed Amendments 33C and 33D in lieu.

Amendments 33C and 33D weaken these tests by introducing a condition allowing for remedies to be awarded even when doing so would harm third parties or be detrimental to good administration if there is an “exceptional public interest reason” for granting a remedy.

Amendments 33C and 33D were agreed by the Lords and became part of the act.

Read the final text of the act

Coming up

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

If you made it this far...

Ahead of the final sitting of the Public Bill Committee on the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, read our main concerns and recommendations on the bill.

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