Westminster update: Law Society gives evidence on Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Public Bill

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. Law Society gives evidence on Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Public Bill

On Thursday 20 May, the Law Society’s head of public law, Ellie Cumbo, gave evidence to the parliamentary committee scrutinising the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Cumbo gave evidence on the impact that remote hearings can have on vulnerable witnesses, the uncertain impact of remote juries on access to justice, and our views on changes to pre-charge bail.

Cumbo highlighted that remote hearings can be convenient in certain cases, administrative hearings for example, but they can have a serious impact on vulnerable clients who may struggle to engage with the process. She called for clearer guidance for their use alongside the legislation. The bill will also enable changes to juries, and Cumbo noted that while the Law Society could support the inclusion of deaf jurors and British Sign Language interpreters, we do not support remote juries hearing cases. There has been little consultation in this area and we are unclear about how a jury’s perception of a case could be impacted by remote observation.

When asked about our concerns around pre-charge bail, Cumbo raised the long time periods that the bill allows a suspect to be bailed for and noted the Law Society would prefer that shorter timelines with judicial oversight at an earlier point were put in place. The bill will now continue its committee stage, with MPs scrutinising the bill line by line in the coming weeks. The Law Society will continue to work with Parliamentarians to shape it.

Read the transcript 

2. Law Society referenced in Queen's speech debates

This week, both the Commons and the Lords continued to debate the content of last week’s Queen’s speech.

On Monday, the focus of the Commons debate was on ‘safe streets for all’. The home secretary, Priti Patel, dedicated much of her speech to praising the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which began its committee stage this week. The Chair of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Bob Neill (Conservative), echoed the recommendations of the Law Society by calling on the government to consider carefully the risks of maintaining remote juries beyond the pandemic.

Read the Commons 'safe streets for all' debate

On Monday, the Lords debated ‘communities, welfare, transport and the environment’. Lord Greenhalgh, Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government, addressed the planned Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill, which he said would “put an end to ground rents for new leasehold properties”. Lord Greenhalgh also stated that the upcoming Planning Bill would “simplify and modernise the system, embracing digital tools to allow people to visualise and engage with local plans”.

Baroness Hayman (Crossbench) echoed the Law Society’s call for all planning reforms to be seen through a “green lens”, while Lady Whitchurch and Baroness Young (both Labour) reiterated the Law Society’s concerns by raising the potential negative consequences of apportioning land for either development or protection.

Read the Lords 'communities, welfare, transport and the environment' debate

On Tuesday, the Lords debated ‘home affairs, justice and culture’. Justice Minister Lord Wolfson opened the debate by discussing the Government’s new plan for immigration legislation which he said would be “the most significant overhaul of our immigration and asylum systems for decades”. Baroness Lister (Labour) criticised the Government’s assertion that the new asylum system would be fairer and more efficacious. Referencing the Law Society, she said “we certainly need more fairness and efficacy, but the Law Society and refugee and human rights groups warn that this plan spells the opposite”.

Lord Ponsonby, the Shadow Justice Spokesperson, raised the recent Government consultation on judicial review, which the Law Society contributed to, saying “the Government are unhappy that their own panel has not advocated the widespread changes that they wanted, so they have announced further consultations on various aspects of judicial review to get a different answer”.

Read the Lords 'home affairs, justice and culture' debate

On the same day, the Commons debated ‘safe and affordable housing for all’. Robert Jenrick (Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government) argued in favour of the Government’s upcoming Building Safety Bill, stating that it “supports the removal of unsafe cladding, with a new levy on developers seeking permission to develop certain high-rise buildings”. Several Labour MPs argued that the Government should ensure the legislation protects all leaseholders from having to cover the costs of addressing dangerous cladding, a position which is supported by the Law Society.

Read the Commons 'affordable and safe housing for all' debate

3. Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill committee stage

On Tuesday 18 May and Thursday 20 May, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill began its committee stage in the House of Commons. A range of organisations from the Law Society and Bar Council to criminal justice organisations, police representatives and others gave evidence to MPs scrutinising the bill. Much of the focus was on the bill’s sentencing provisions, as well as changes to the policing of protests that have attracted controversy for their potential to impact civil liberties.

Evidence from the Bar Council echoed the Law Society’s concerns around the potential impact remote juries could have on justice and how vulnerable people may struggle to engage with hearings held remotely. During her evidence, the Victims Commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird, argued that the bill did not do enough for victims in the justice system. She noted many simply wanted to be kept up to date with cases and dealt with decently by criminal justice agencies. A theme from witnesses during the session was that there had been a lack of consultation on a number of areas in the bill, including on juries and sentencing provisions.

Read the first session, second session, third session and fourth session transcripts

4. MPs question justice ministers

On Thursday, the attorney general, Michael Ellis, answered questions from MPs in the Commons.

Catherine West (Labour) asked what steps the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and other agencies in the criminal justice system were taking to reduce the backlog of cases resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The attorney general responded by saying that inspections conducted by Her Majesty’s CPS inspectorate had found that the CPS had “responded well to the challenges caused by COVID-19”.

Sally-Ann Hart (Conservative) then asked what lessons the CPS will take forward from its pandemic response to improve future resilience. The attorney general said one of things that would be looked at is the cloud video platform, which he said is enabling 20,000 virtual hearings a week.

Jeff Smith (Labour) asked: “If the Government are serious about tackling the backlog of court cases… why his colleague in the Ministry of Justice has halved the amount spent annually on recorded sitting days in the past five years, from £19 million to £9.5 million?” The attorney general responded by highlighting that the Ministry of Justice has arranged for an unlimited number of sitting days “so that the judiciary and the courts system can keep up with all the work that is going on”.

Read the transcript

5. Attorney general questioned in the Commons

On Thursday, the Attorney General, Michael Ellis, answered questions from MPs in the Commons.

Catherine West (Labour) asked what steps the CPS and other agencies in the criminal justice system were taking to reduce the backlog of cases resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The attorney general responded by saying that inspections conducted by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service had found that the CPS had “responded well to the challenges caused by COVID-19”.

Sally-Ann Hart (Conservative) then asked what lessons the Crown Prosecution Service will take forward from its pandemic response to improve future resilience. The attorney general said one of things that would be looked at was the cloud video platform, which he said was enabling 20,000 virtual hearings a week.

Jeff Smith (Labour) asked “if the Government are serious about tackling the backlog of court cases… why his colleague in the Ministry of Justice has halved the amount spent annually on recorded sitting days in the past five years, from £19 million to £9.5 million?”

The Attorney General responded by highlighting that the Ministry of Justice has arranged for an unlimited number of sitting days “so that the judiciary and the courts system can keep up with all the work that is going on”.

Read the transcript

Coming up next week

In the Commons, the Finance Bill will have its third reading on Monday; the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill has its committee stages on Tuesday and Thursday; and the report stage of the Environment Bill is on Wednesday.

Next week will also see Westminster Hall debates on cyber fraud in the UK and World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday and Thursday respectively.

In the Lords, the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill and the Professional Qualifications Bill will have their second readings on Monday and Tuesday respectively. There is also an oral question on leaseholder bankruptcies due to remedial fire safety works on Monday, and the International Agreements Committee is taking oral evidence on the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership on Wednesday.

Both houses will go on recess on the Friday and are due to return on Monday 7 June.

If you made it this far...

Read our overview of the key bills in the Queen's speech and what they could mean for the legal profession.

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