Westminster update: Law Society gives evidence before the Justice Select Committee

Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall. This week: regulation of legal services, emergency Rwanda legislation and changes to the Parole Board.
The palace of Westminster in the evening.
Photograph: Thomas Riebesehl

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On Tuesday 12 December, we are taking the government to court over levels of criminal legal aid funding.

Our judicial review will shine a spotlight on the decision-making process in the Ministry of Justice and its choice to ignore the recommendations of the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid.

Learn more about our judicial review

What you need to know

1. We give evidence before the Justice Select Committee

On Tuesday 5 December, our president Nick Emmerson and chief executive Ian Jeffery gave oral evidence before the Justice Select Committee in Parliament.

The purpose of the session was to review the overall regulation of legal services.

The committee chair Sir Bob Neill MP initially asked whether we believed the current regulatory framework was fit for purpose.

Nick outlined the overall sentiment that while there have been issues in the 16 years since the Legal Services Act 2007 (LSA), the current system was sufficient.

Instead, we would welcome an ‘MOT’ of the LSB’s performance, but not necessarily substantive change.

Nick was then asked to put forward our argument against unlimited Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) fining powers, to which he responded that the current framework for accountability against inappropriate behaviours through the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) is sufficient.

Nick raised concerns that, with unlimited fining powers, the SRA becomes judge, jury and executioner.

James Daly MP went on to ask Nick and Ian whether they believe it is fair for the profession to be paying for the illegal activities of Axiom Ince.

Nick highlighted that this is an ongoing case and until all details are known we cannot fully commit to a strategy.

He however pointed out that current reserves in the Solicitors Compensation Fund were not sufficient to cover the expected costs and a levy might be necessary.

Another significant line of questioning centred around proposals to bring Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) members under the regulatory umbrella of the SRA.

The committee asked Nick for our opinion on the matter, to which Nick outlined the possibility of consumer confusion between qualified solicitors and legal professionals, as well as market fragmentation between unregulated and regulated practitioners.

The SRA’s chair Anna Bradley and chief executive Paul Phillip we questioned, and reiterated that the current framework was fit for purpose and that, in their belief, wide-ranging reform was not needed.

The SRA highlighted its ongoing consultation on CILEX reform, as well as emphasising that it does not believe a lack of regulator action was present in the case of Axiom Ince.

2. Emergency Rwanda draft legislation published

On Wednesday 6 December, the government published the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Draft Bill.

The purpose of the bill is to entrench in law, the supremacy of Parliament on immigration matters as well as the safety of Rwanda.

A significant reason behind the Supreme Court’s rejection of the scheme was down to safety concerns for migrants relocated to Rwanda. The bill categorically confirms Rwanda’s safety.

The bill also includes notwithstanding clauses that block any further attempts by domestic or international courts to block flights, including the European Court of Human Rights and Human Rights Act.

In a statement, the home secretary, James Cleverly assured the house that the rule of law partnership with Rwanda sets out a legally binding international treaty, with the obligations on both the UK and Rwanda within international law, and sets out to Parliament and to the courts why Rwanda is and will remain a safe country for the purposes of asylum and resettlement.

The treaty also commits Rwanda to introduce a strengthened end-to-end asylum system, which will include a new specialist asylum appeals tribunal to consider individual appeals against any refused claims.

In a press conference on Thursday 7 December, the prime minister stated his "patience is running thin" on the matter and that votes on the bill would be a vote of confidence in Parliament’s ability to recognise the public's frustration with illegal migration.

3. Victims and Prisoners Bill: government dilutes changes to parole board

The government used the remaining stages of the Victims and Prisoners Bill in the Commons to pass a series of amendments weakening its proposed reforms to the parole board.

We had criticised plans to allow the secretary of state to intervene in parole board cases involving serious offenders and make the decision themselves.

Following arguments from MPs, the Law Society and other justice stakeholders, the government has instead decided to amend these provisions so the secretary of state can direct a parole case be heard by the Upper Tribunal or the High Court.

While we still do not believe these changes are necessary, we are pleased that the government will not give the secretary of state the power to make decisions about liberty, which should remain a matter for the judiciary.

MPs welcomed these changes during the debate, but Labour called on the government to go further and strengthen protections and support for victims through the bill.

The government also suffered its first defeat in the Commons since Rishi Sunak became prime minister, with MPs voting to speed up the process to give victims of the infected blood scandal compensation.

The bill will now move to the House of Lords and we will continue to engage and influence peers on the legislation.

4. Immigration minister resigns over Rwanda legislation

Following the government’s Rwanda legislation announcement, the minister for immigration Robert Jenrick MP stepped down from his post.

In his resignation letter, he claimed the government had not gone far enough with announced legislation to tackle boat crossings.

With such severe disagreements, Jenrick came to the conclusion he could not continue in his role.

In response, the prime minister split the role into two ministerial positions.

Michael Tomlinson was appointed minister for state for illegal migration. He was a barrister and solicitor general for England and Wales.

The appointment underscores Sunak and Cleverly's focus on tacking the complexity of their Rwanda plan.

There are continuing questions over whether the government might be able to navigate international law in order to pass emergency legislation designed to implement the UK-Rwanda agreement.

Meanwhile, Pursglove takes on the brief of the minister of state for legal migration and delivery.

Tomlinson, however, will attend Cabinet meetings, further strengthening the notion of both the complexity and seriousness of the situation through which the prime minister is looking to chart a course.

As Tomlinson moves to this new role, Robert Courts MP takes over as solicitor general.

As a barrister himself, we plan to make contact and outline how he best supports access to justice and the rule of law in his new role.

We will also engage with the new immigration ministers to outline our positions on newly announced legislation.

Coming up:

We are working on a number of bills in Parliament:

If you made it this far...

The Law Society, in partnership with Economic Frontiers, have launched a new legal aid survey.

We are calling on legal aid providers to contribute economic evidence that fuels our wider reporting.

This is vital for informing our influencing work and we would be grateful for any contributions our members can provide.

Take part here