Westminster update: Recess begins

Alexandra Cardenas
Alexandra CardenasThe Law Society
Houses of Parliament

One thing you need to do

We're developing resources and guidance on the coronavirus situation, to support our members through this difficult period.

Read our guidance and updates on coronavirus

Five things you need to know

1. From Paul Wilson, our director of public affairs

I’ve never seen a week like this. Coronavirus is having a huge impact on the ability of our members to practise safely and continue to uphold the rule of law. We've been working endlessly to try and ensure that the needs of our members are being communicated to government at the highest levels.

Just over a week ago, the government announced that schools and nurseries would be closing. That raised the question of who would be considered a 'key worker'. I’m very pleased that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) included those essential to the working of the justice system in the list of key workers – something we had asked for – which reflects the importance of the work that the profession does.

But coronavirus has raised a host of other issues. First and foremost among these is the safety of our members. In the context of coronavirus, it is never acceptable for members to experience less than hygienic conditions in their work in courts, prisons and police stations. Where we've had reports of such conditions, we have raised concerns with MoJ and HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS). This has informed a number of government decisions this week, including the announcement to consolidate part of the court estate. Please keep bringing these issues to our attention.

Business continuity is a huge issue. We know that firms are under increasing financial strain as a result of the social distancing measures and a slowdown in client activity. It's vital that firms are supported to ensure they can keep their businesses going through this period. We've been in constant communication with the UK and Welsh governments about the support that our members will need.

The UK government has announced a host of measures designed to support businesses and individuals affected. We know, however, that there have been some difficulties in accessing these schemes, and we're raising these concerns as a priority. We're also calling for further measures to support our firms, to make sure that they can stay open, continue to support employees, and keep the wheels of justice turning. These discussions with government touch on all aspects of business support, and we'll continue to share updates as we have them.

For legal aid firms, as a result of years of campaigning against legal aid cuts, the MoJ is already aware of the financial difficulties that firms already face. We've been in dialogue with the MoJ and Legal Aid Agency, at the highest levels, about the need for changes which will support firms with its cashflow and sustainability. We've seen some changes to the rules and we hope to see more.

Regulatory compliance is another key concern for members. We're holding continued dialogue with the SRA and other regulators to ensure that our members are supported to comply with the rules in this unprecedent period. We know that many of our members are under particular pressure due to the need to renew professional indemnity insurance at this time.

As always, ensuring and upholding the rule of law remains a top priority for us. This pandemic brings many challenges, but it's vital that our justice system continues to function, and that due process, fair trial and civil liberties are respected.

Please do continue to send us the issues you are facing. We know there is much more to be done, with greater clarity needed in many areas, and more financial support for firms required. We'll be continuing to work with the UK and Welsh governments to find the necessary solutions to ensure the justice sector can continue to function throughout this pandemic. You can email our dedicated mailbox at coronavirus@lawsociety.org.uk.

Find our coronavirus advice and guidance online

Read more about the work we're doing to engage with decision makers

2. Lord chancellor gives evidence to the Justice Select Committee

Last Tuesday, the lord chancellor gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee on the work of the MoJ. The session focused on the impact of coronavirus on the justice system, and the measures being implemented to address this by the MoJ and its agencies.

We were mentioned by lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC MP three times during the session, who stated: “Can I say, the Law Society, I’m so grateful for the support that they’ve given us through this very testing time. They’ve shown that professionals are prepared to step up to the plate and help deliver justice in a calm and measured way.”

Criminal legal aid

Former solicitor James Daly MP (Conservative) said that if the system is going to continue, people need access to justice. However he noted that in certain parts of the country there are shortages of lawyers and people are unable to access advice. He asked what measures will be put in place going forward to ensure access to justice. He also noted that prior to the pandemic, many legal aid firms were operating on extremely tight margins, and asked how the MoJ will ensure that enough legal aid firms are supported to make sure they can continue to facilitate access to justice.

Responding, the lord chancellor said this was a very powerful point and noted that prior to the crisis, he had already asked for work to be done to map the provision of legal aid across the jurisdiction. He said that the sustainability of the criminal legal aid system is very important, and that he knew that we're working very closely with MoJ officials to help identify needs within the system.

He said that this is part of the wider review the MoJ has been doing into criminal legal aid and noted that very recently he had announced a set of accelerated proposals and had received response from both professions. He said that there is most definitely more work to be done with regards to the solicitor’s profession, and to work out what will be a sustainable model for the future, because he is currently far from convinced that the way we remunerate solicitors actually matches the work that they do (and particularly the early work that they do in attending prisons and preparing).

He said that the impact of Covid-19 could be acute, and that the MoJ was liaising very closely with us to address this.

Watch the session

3. Coronavirus Bill receives Royal Assent

Last week, the Coronavirus Bill was introduced in the House of Commons and passed through all its remaining stages in Parliament, receiving Royal Assent and becoming law on Wednesday (25 March).

House of Commons

Secretary of state for health and social care Matt Hancock MP opened the second reading of the Bill in the House of Commons by stating: “Essentially the Bill gives all four UK governments a legislative and regulatory toolkit to respond in the right way at the right time and working through the action plan.” He said he hoped that some of these powers won’t have to be used, but that the government won’t hesitate to act if necessary.

He said that measures within the Bill would address five key areas:

  • increasing the available health and social care workforce
  • easing the burden on frontline staff, both within the NHS and beyond
  • measure to contain and slow the spread of the virus
  • managing those who the disease has taken with dignity and respect
  • helping people to get through the crisis

Hancock said that, crucially, the legislation is time-limited to two years, and individual measures can be turned on and off by authorities as necessary. He noted that the government had tabled an amendment to reduce this time limit and subject the continuation of the Bill to a six-monthly review.

He also noted that before each six-monthly review the government will provide evidence and advice from the chief medical officer to inform debate. He said that there will also be a report mechanism, allowing for a report every eight weeks on the use of the powers outlined in the Bill.

Several other amendments were tabled in the House of Commons, including an amendment to schedule 24 on live links in other criminal proceedings which makes temporary modifications to the Extradition Act 2003 so that the power to direct that persons affected by the extradition claim may take part in certain hearings under that Act by live link is extended so that the power can be exercised in relation to any person who is taking part in any hearing under Part 1 or 2 of that Act. We called for this change to made.

House of Lords

Multiple amendments were tabled for committee stage in the House of Lords by opposition spokespeople or backbench peers. All were either withdrawn or not moved.

Whilst discussing the amendments, Earl Howe and Lord Bethell speaking for the government confirmed the following in terms of use of powers and scrutiny for the Bill:

  • Review clause - Clause 98 will allow the House of Commons to take a view every six months on whether the provisions of the Act need to continue in force
  • Renewal under affirmative procedure - There will be a meaningful debate in both Houses after 12 months and an affirmative instrument will need to be made for any renewal after 24 months
  • Reporting to Parliament every two months - Ministers will report to Parliament every two months on how they have used the powers and the government will publish an up-to-date account of which provisions are in force and what plans it has to review or change that status
  • Mental Health Act powers - It was noted that these are exceptional powers and that none of them will be introduced unless the advice comes from health experts and the scientists that they are necessary. If invoked, in relation to the Mental Health Act, the appeals process will still apply, the temporary derogation will be used only for as long as necessary and the government will have to account for its use
  • Adherence to the Human Rights Act - They noted that there is nothing in the Act that allows the government to breach or disapply the Human Rights Act or the Equality Act. Pursuant to Section 6 of the Human Rights Act, every exercise of power by a public authority under this Bill is already required to be compliant with the Human Rights Act. They further reassured the House that the government will act with proportionality at all times

The Bill subsequently passed through all its remaining stages in the House of Lords before receiving Royal Assent.

See a copy of the Coronavirus Act 2020

4. Government response to coronavirus raised in Prime Minister's Questions

Last Thursday, prime minister Boris Johnson attended Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ) in the House of Commons. It was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s last PMQ session before a new leader of the Labour Party is announced in April.

The session lasted for double its normal length (an hour in total) and focused on the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, with topics including the impact on housing, Parliament, businesses and the self-employed.

  • Leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn MP noted that it would possibly be some time before Parliament opens again. He said that scrutiny is an essential function of Parliament, and asked the prime minister to confirm what measures will be put in place to submit the government to scrutiny and ensure that Parliament is able to hold it to account. Prime minister Boris Johnson MP replied that the government’s approach to the crisis so far has to be as open and transparent as it can be, and that he will work with the Speaker to ensure that Parliament is kept informed over the recess.
  • Corbyn asked if the prime minister would absolutely ban evictions for six months in line with the renewal period of the emergency legislation in the Coronavirus Bill which is currently progressing through Parliament. Responding, Johnson said that the government had gone further by lifting the local housing allowance and is also making sure that no-fault evictions are no longer legal, which is outlined in the Bill. He said that the government will keep the three month period under review.
  • Corbyn replied that this was not the reality of the situation on the ground, and said that he has been contacted by constituents who are being evicted now because they are in rent arrears due to loss of income following the lock down. He asked the government to confirm whether a ban on evictions will be put into legislation.
  • Corbyn said that he was asking about the self-employed, those on zero-hours contracts and those with no recourse to public funds. He said that there are many who live a hand-to-mouth existence who need urgent access to funds. He noted that last night there was a queue of 110,000 people trying to access the Universal Credit website to register. He asked the government to confirm whether it will allocate funding to boost the Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) capacity and relax the “often draconian requirements” on people claiming Universal Credit. Replying, Johnson said that the government has increased the funding for Universal Credit in order to raise the amount by £1000 per year. He noted that the government has allocated £7bn additional funding for the welfare system. Corbyn repeated his question, asking the prime minister to confirm whether the DWP would receive additional resources.
  • Adam Afriyie MP (Conservative) asked the prime minister to confirm that he would lift the lock down measures at the earliest possible opportunity. Responding, Johnson said that this will of course be the case, and that all measures are being kept under constant review.

See a transcript of the session

5. Gove gives evidence to the Future Relationship Committee

The chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove MP recently appeared before the EU Future Relationship Committee (previously the Exiting the European Union Committee) to give oral evidence on the ongoing UK-EU Brexit negotiations.

Gove stressed that the government wishes to build on precedent for the future relationship, and that they wish to present measures “similar or completely analogous to the relationship that you have concluded with Canada, Japan or South Korea” during negotiations. On financial services and professional services, Gove stressed that the government was looking to cover mutual recognition of professional qualifications. When asked how confident he was of agreeing a deal, Gove said it was “odds on,” clarifying that this “would be anything from 51% to 99%.” He said he was more confident at the end of the first three week phase than before, and reported “a good and positive dynamic.”

In response to a question on how the ongoing coronavirus crisis will effect negotiations, Gove sad he would keep Parliament updated on any progress or concerns, and that there will not be any extension to the 31 December deadline. He said that “we may not necessarily have concluded everything on internal security by the 31st [of December]” and that there will “absolutely” be a way to continue security co-operation in the interim. He later clarified that there will not be “any transitions or temporary carry-ons” and that lacking access to Schengen II would leave the UK with many other options to “protect and enhance national security.”

Read the full transcript

Coming up this week

Parliament is currently in recess, returning Tuesday 21 April.

If you made it this far

A joint University of Oxford and Law Society survey has found that the use of technology and provision of lawtech training remains low among solicitors in England and Wales.

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