Westminster update: no rabbits to pull out the hat in the spring budget

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

What you need to do

Read our response to the spring budget. While we are pleased some funding was allocated to modernise our justice system, it doesn’t go far enough to address the widespread issues across the system.   

What you need to know

Spring budget: no rabbits to pull out the hat

On Wednesday (6 March), chancellor of the exchequer Jeremy Hunt set out the spring budget before the Commons. The biggest surprise was the severe lack of surprises. 

Most of the measures had been previously leaked or speculated, leading to analysis that there might be another fiscal announcement before the next general election.

Hunt stated that due to the government’s emphasis on fiscal responsibility, “permanent cuts in taxation” could be implemented.

The chancellor followed through on the weekend’s rumours by cutting employee national insurance contributions by 2% from 10% to 8% and self-employed national insurance contributions to 6%.

On justice, the government committed £170 million to deliver what it calls “a justice system fit for the modern era”. This includes several investments into different aspects of the system.

For a start, £12 million is being invested in expanding legal aid to encompass early legal advice in private family law proceedings for parties considering an application to the family court for child arrangements.

The government also committed to investing £10 million into the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to digitise jury bundles in the criminal courts, reducing paper wastage and unnecessary trial delays.

Meanwhile, £55 million is being channelled into family courts to offer online targeted guidance and earlier legal advice to shorten wait times and support families through non-court dispute resolution.

The government also plans to introduce a new online information and guidance tool to support earlier resolution of family disputes and divert cases away from the family courts, where appropriate. The tool will help families navigate the range of options available by suggesting suitable interventions based on need and provide early legal advice.

Lastly on justice, the government wants to improve the experiences of the courts for victims and survivors of domestic abuse through the Private Law Pathfinder Pilot. This scheme will identify needs earlier and provide specialist support to victims and survivors of domestic abuse.

Elsewhere, the chancellor announced measures to strengthen the regulatory framework for the tax advice market and plans to increase the Economic Crime Levy from £250,000 to £500,000. 

Hunt also revealed a new £7.4 million scheme to help small firms develop their employees’ AI skills – something that may be of particular interest to many in the legal sector.

2. Rwanda Bill: Lords pass suite of amendments 

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill was back in the Lords for its report stage on Monday (4 March) and Wednesday (6 March), which saw several amendments levied against it.

We questioned the workability and compatibility of this bill with core tenets of the rule of law, has worked with peers since it entered the Lords to formulate and lobby for amendments.

Lord Coaker (Labour) moved his amendment 2, which aims to ensure the UK remains consistent with international law, something which he said he thought “was a given”. His amendment passed by 274 votes to 172.

Lord Anderson (Crossbench) moved amendment 9, which allows for Rwanda to be considered unsafe by the courts if “presented with credible evidence” that it is not safe. 

This has the effect of bringing judicial oversight back into the Bill’s provisions. Amendment 9 passed by a vote of 258 to 171.

Lord Anderson’s amendment 12 also passed by a vote of 260 to 169. This amendment removed restrictions on the courts ability to consider interim measures when judging an individual’s risk of refoulement or serious harm if removed to Rwanda.

Elsewhere, Lord Hope (Crossbench) was also successful in passing his suite of amendments. His amendment 4 changes language in clause 1 to assert that Rwanda will only be deemed safe once all treaty conditions are implemented. This amendment passed by a vote of 282 to 180.

Lord Hope also tabled amendment 7 to strengthen the powers of the monitoring committee to report to parliament on adherence to the treaty. This amendment passed by a vote of 277 to 167.

Lastly, Baroness Chakrabarti struck yet another blow to the Rwanda Bill, passing amendment 33 which removes clause 4 of the bill and inserts new provisions on assessing decisions in individual cases. 

Her amendment, meanwhile, passed by a vote of 278 to 189. It helps to protect more vulnerable individuals from the risk of removal to Rwanda, where they may experience irreparable harm.

The bill will have its third reading in the Lords on 12 March, before heading into “ping pong”, where the Commons and the Lords will vote on whether to accept the others’ amendments. 

We will be pushing hard to ensure amendments are taken forward to mitigate some of the worst impacts on the rule of law and access to justice.

Where’s the money for criminal legal aid”, MPs ask 

On Tuesday (5 March) the Justice Select Committee questioned top officials from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), including permanent secretary Antonia Romeo, on criminal legal aid, the MoJ’s budget and the courts backlog.

Chair Sir Bob Neill raised the Law Society’s successful judicial review of the government’s response to the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid and asked if the government would now pay duty solicitors the full 15% recommended by the review.

Romeo said the government was considering the judgment, arguing that the judgement was on “narrow grounds”, but the chair rejected this saying it was attempting to save face on the part of the department and the Law Society had won. 

Sir Bob also argued that CLAIR was clear a 15% increase is needed and pushed further suggesting that the MoJ is at risk of damaging faith with the legal profession by appearing to “wriggle” out of a much-needed increase in criminal legal aid rates. 

Romeo was unable to provide any further details and simply said the government was considering the judgment and would abide by the High Court. Watch the exchange here.

On the MoJ’s budget more broadly, Romeo outlined how increased demand and inflation has meant they’ve been forced to reallocate capital spending into day-to-day spending to cover it. Around £700 million has been absorbed by the department due to rising costs caused by inflation.

The Committee also looked at the backlog in the Crown Court, asking if the government’s target for a cases backlog of 53,000 was still achievable. 

Romeo argued the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) strike action and pandemic had driven up the caseload. The government had extended the use of Nightingale Courts and is recruiting more judges. 

In the words of the CEO of His Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), every “sinew is being strained” to address the backlog. 

Despite these actions, we remain concerned that progress on the backlog is glacial and will remain so without further funding and capacity among lawyers, court staff and judges.

Coming up

The Law Society is working on a number of bills in Parliament

If you made it this far

In honour of International Women's Day, read our press release urging firms to continue efforts to retain female solicitors and ensure progression towards senior levels. 

We have found that, while representation continues to mirror population levels, progression towards senior leadership continues to lag behind.


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