Westminster update: lord chancellor announces legal aid rise

Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
The palace of Westminster in the evening.
Photograph: Thomas Riebesehl

One thing you need to do

Following concerns raised by the Law Society of England and Wales and local practitioners about legal aid in west Wales, the Ministry of Justice has intervened by uplifting police station fixed fees in Llanelli.

Our president Nick Emmerson said: “We are pleased to see that the Ministry of Justice has responded to our calls to restore fees to their previous rates for the four affected law firms.”

Read more here.

What you need to know

1. Lord chancellor announces legal aid rise

The lord chancellor, Alex Chalk, announced an increase in legal aid rates for section 28 cases in an oral evidence before the Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday 25 October.

These cases, where witnesses in domestic abuse cases provide pre-recorded evidence, will see an increase in the fees paid to barristers to £1,000, up from £670, after the lord chancellor argued the fees were too low.

Responding to the announcement, our president Nick Emmerson said: “Welcome as this support for the victims of sexual offences is, they will never see true justice unless and until the government invests properly in the whole of the justice system.”

Elsewhere in the session, the chair of the Committee, Baroness Hamwee (Liberal Democrat), emphasised that many courts are experiencing difficulty involving relevant expert witnesses due to insufficient legal aid funding.

The lord chancellor recognised the importance of ensuring sustainability in criminal legal aid and reiterated previously announced investment of £141 million.

Lord Filkin (Labour) asked whether the lord chancellor was alive to the consequences were the UK to resign its membership from the ECHR.

Chalk set out the government's position that the UK will remain a member of the ECHR.

Lord Filkin went on to mention that Section 28 of the Illegal Immigration Act is in direct conflict with international obligations and Section 3 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Baroness Chakrabarti (Labour) mirrored these concerns by mentioning that provisions in the Victims and Prisoners Bill disapply parts of the Human Rights Act.

Chalk responded that with these issues, the government must balance people’s rights and their interests in stopping the flow of illegal migrants.

The lord chancellor stated that all legislation currently being introduced is consistent with current law and international obligations.

2. Economic Crime Act becomes law

On 26 October, the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act passed the final stages of parliamentary scrutiny and received royal assent.

The act is now published in full and will introduce a range of reforms to tackle economic crime and improve transparency over corporate entities.

We have been engaging with parliamentarians across the political spectrum over the past year to improve the act and support the government’s aim of tackling economic crime, offering input from members on how the changes will impact the legal profession.

Through our lobbying, we secured a clarification of the scope of the new regulatory objective introduced by the act on promoting the prevention and detection of economic crime.

We had flagged concerns that the overly wide scope of this new objective would have negative implications for the profession and would divert attention away from the areas of most risk.

The justice minister, Lord Bellamy, accepted our arguments.

At report stage he made clear the regulatory objective will need to be implemented in a targeted and proportionate way.

Also, regulatory activity should be transparent, accountable, proportionate and consistent as well as targeted only on cases where action is required.

The act also takes steps to legislate against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).

This is the first time the UK has introduced these measures and we broadly support the government’s ambition to ensure that abusive litigation can be dealt with appropriately.

We have flagged however that the act only addresses SLAPPs related to economic crime, and there remain weaknesses in the current provisions that will need to be addressed through further legislation.

We remain concerned, however, by the act’s provisions to give the SRA unlimited fining powers against firms and solicitors in economic crime cases. This comes despite little evidence demonstrating a need for additional fining powers, especially as unlimited fines can already be awarded by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), alongside more severe sanctions such as striking off.

We are concerned that increasing the SRA’s fining powers in this way means that more cases will be dealt with by the SRA alone, and fewer will be taken through the far more robust disciplinary process of an SDT hearing.

We will continue to work with the government as we move toward implementation of the new regime, where firms will need to grapple with:

  • reforms to Companies House
  • changes to AML compliance
  • the new register of overseas entities
  • a new failure to prevent fraud offence

3. Prime minister sets out stall on artificial intelligence

On Thursday 26 October the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, delivered a keynote speech setting out his views and proposed approach to artificial intelligence (AI).

He expressed his optimism for the future of technology and his belief in AI’s power to make people’s lives better, and stated he is focused on delivering the advantages of technology. He was also cautious to reassure that he is alive to potential risks and outlined key efforts to minimise the possibility of negative outcomes.

The prime minister highlighted the need for government oversight of AI, explaining that we cannot solely rely on AI developers to “mark their own homework”.

To this end, the prime minister announced the formation of an AI Safety Institute.

Its purpose will be to examine, evaluate, and test new types of AI for potential risks, from the smallest risks of misinformation to the greatest risks of super intelligence.

Sunak mentioned that all work conducted by the institute would be made available to the world as he wishes for the UK to lead the conversation and advance global knowledge of AI safety.

The UK will also soon host a Global AI Summit, bringing together world leading experts, including companies developing new AI models.

The prime minister made a point of highlighting the invitation sent to China, even though some MPs had warned against cooperation on this issue.

Alongside this, Sunak’s approach sees the formation of a global expert panel, nominated by nations to publish reports on the state of AI developments and regulation.

Sunak mentioned where AI has already benefited sectors, including Robin AI’s impact on legal contract drafting. He also highlighted £100 million of investment channelled into developing cures and vaccines for diseases like cancer.

When questioned on the possibility of job losses prompted by AI, Sunak pointed out that 50,000 jobs have already been created by AI and that the future will most likely see AI as a co-pilot providing assistance so jobs can be completed more productively.

4. European Convention on Human Rights debated in Lords

On Wednesday 25 October, several peers questioned the justice minister, Lord Bellamy, as to the government’s official standing on the UK’s continued membership in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Lord Bellamy said that the government are still committed to the Convention, but implied that changes may need to be made to the Convention because the situation has changed since the Second World War.

He said that “one has to bear in mind that institutions must respond to international changes and developments.”

Lord Faulkes of Cumnock (Labour) suggested that the nomination of Conservative MP John Howell to be the next European Commissioner of Human Rights is being undermined by talk from senior ministers about withdrawing from the Convention.

Lord Bellamy said that the government’s position is that we are members of the Convention and that such statements “do not reflect the position of the government.”

Lord Dubs (Labour) said that when he visited Strasbourg, he was told that any weakening of commitment to the Convention by the UK would make it more acceptable for others to be noncompliant. “That is why it is so damaging when cabinet ministers make the comments that they have done”, he argued.

Lord Bellamy agreed that “dialogue is important”.

Baroness Chakrabarti (Labour) urged the minister to read the lord chancellor’s most recent appearance before the Justice and Home Affairs Committee.

She said that the lord chancellor’s words will be taken as a commitment to the ECHR, and that Section 3 of the Human Right Act will not keep being disapplied from future Bills in this House.

5. Renter's Reform Bill finally passes first hurdle

On Monday 23 October, the Renters Reform Bill had its second reading in the Commons.

The debate saw mention of the lack of provision of legal aid for housing, and MPs discussed the backlogs and capacity issues in the courts.

Levelling up secretary Michael Gove opened the debate noting that the government would ensure the justice system is fit for purpose before they move ahead with elements of the Bill, including the abolition of section 21 evictions.

Gove highlighted the role the rental sector plays in the UK economy and the importance of giving tenants and landlords rights to redress.

He highlighted the abolition of section 21 and said this would remove a “weapon” from the hands of unscrupulous landlords as it had been used to evict those complaining about rent rises of home quality issues.

The new provisions in the Bill however would make it easier for landlords to deal with anti-social behaviour or rent arrears.

Responding for Labour, shadow levelling up secretary Angela Rayner noted that Labour would be supporting the Bill and that she was pleased to see the abolition of section 21 and the creation of a new ombudsman.

She highlighted the serious impact section 21 evictions were having on tenants across the country.

Karen Buck (Labour) criticised the crisis in the courts system, highlighting the deep cuts the ministry of justice has faced since 2010.

She also highlighted how the collapse in legal aid and the advice sector was in part driving homelessness across the country.

Closing the debate, housing minister Rachel Maclean said that over 95% of hearings were listed within four to eight weeks of receipt, but agreed that landlords need to have faith in the system.

Court reform remains a priority for the department and the MoJ and she said she wants to see landlords offered a digital process for possession on all grounds.

Coming up:

The government will deliver its autumn statement on 22 November.

We have made a formal submission to the treasury with our recommendations for supporting the justice system and legal sector, and we will continue to push these with MPs and ministers.

Parliament is currently prorogued ahead of the King’s speech on Tuesday 7 November, where the government will set out its new legislative agenda.

Below is an update on the bills we have been working on:

Victims and Prisoners Bill will be carried over to the next Parliamentary session, where it will begin its report stage in the Commons, on a date still to be confirmed.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act received royal assent on 26 Oct.

Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill will be carried over to the next Parliamentary session, where it will begin its report stage in the Commons, on a date to be confirmed.

Levelling Up and Regeneration Act received royal assent on 26 Oct.

If you made it this far:
Read our recommendations to supercharge our legal sector at the upcoming Autumn statement.

With the government set to outline their budget allocations for the upcoming year, we have pushed for further investment in civil and criminal legal aid, as well as advocating for the harnessing of digital technology.

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