Westminster update: Rwanda bill standoff continues

Your weekly update from our 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

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1. Rwanda bill standoff continues

The Safety of Rwanda Bill went back and forth between the two Houses in four sittings of ping pong last week, as the government and opponents in the Lords failed to reach a consensus on amendments.

Coming into the week, media outlets largely speculated that the bill would become law by midweek.

Last Monday, the government was forced to make a concession around modern slavery.

It brought forward an amendment promising to report annually on how anti-trafficking provisions in the treaty with Rwanda are working, but rejected the rest of the Lords’ proposals.

Unfortunately for the government, peers rallied on Tuesday and similar amendments were again proposed.

Wednesday saw more of the same, with the Commons rejecting all newly proposed amendments (despite a rebellion from former lord chancellor Sir Robert Buckland), throwing the ball back in the Lords’ court.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak hoped this determination would be the end of his struggle to pass his flagship legislation, but the Lords again refused to end their opposition to the unamended bill.

Lord Hope again put forward a slightly tweaked amendment requiring Rwanda to be independently verified as a safe country before it can be considered safe.

Labour also proposed a modified amendment to exempt those who worked with the UK military or government overseas, such as Afghan interpreters, from removal to Rwanda.

The bill now returns to the Commons, where it awaits round four on Monday 22 April. Though the question remains: which side will relent?

2. Post Office Bill: legal experts have their say

On Wednesday (16 April) the Justice Select Committee held an oral evidence session on the Post Office (Horizon Systems) Offences Bill.

On the panel giving evidence were solicitor and legal affairs correspondent Joshua Rozenberg KC.

He was joined by several prominent legal academics from King’s College London, the University of Bristol and the University of Glasgow.

The session began with questions on the legislation’s unprecedented overturning of judicial decisions without compelling victims of the scandal to go back through the appeals process.

Everyone on the panel noted the need to exonerate victims of the scandal but agreed that the bill was “wholly unusual”.

Joshua Rozenberg noted that examples already exist of parliament overturning the decisions of the court through the Litigation Funding Agreements (Enforceability) Bill.

He said: “The bill restores the law to the position it was before the Supreme Court decided the PACCAR case last July. So, we do see examples currently of Parliament overturning decisions of the courts, and maybe this is just another one of them.”

Sir Bob Neill (Conservative) noted that some in the judiciary believe that the Court of Appeal could fast-track these cases which could be done by July. Rozenberg noted that the lord chancellor is sceptical, and that it depends on the approach the prosecutor takes.

Rachel Hopkins (Labour) raised the practical difficulties of notifying the courts and individuals that a conviction has been overturned, particularly for historic convictions.

Dr Hannah Quirk (reader in Criminal Law at King’s College London) questioned whether this part of the bill (clause 4) could be adapted so that the Criminal Cases Review Commission – rather than the Secretary of State – has responsibility for identifying cases.

Joshua Rozenberg clarified that individuals can consider their conviction to be quashed as soon as the act achieves Royal Assent; the problem is proving it. People cannot prove it without some notification from the Secretary of State.

The bill will now have its Committee Stage on 29 April, where it will be subject to amendments.

3. PACCAR: litigation funding legislation backed by Lords

The Litigation Funding Agreements (Enforceability) Bill had its second reading in the Lords on Tuesday (16 April).

The bill aims to address the impact of the Supreme Court judgment in PACCAR, which held that litigation funding agreements (LFAs) that remunerate the litigation funder by reference to a proportion of the damages ultimately recovered are, in fact, damages-based agreements (DBAs).

The effect of the Court’s decision is that currently many LFAs currently in existence are likely to be unenforceable unless they satisfy the additional stringent conditions in subsidiary legislation.

The bill will restore the position to that which prevailed before the decision of the Supreme Court.

Many peers expressed their surprise about the original judgment, with former Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd (Crossbench) and Lord Carlile of Berriew (Crossbench) among them.

Peers discussed the importance of people having avenues to justice against more wealthy and powerful businesses.

However, it was pointed out by many that it is disappointing that legal aid is available to increasingly fewer people.

The minister, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, said that third-party litigation plays a key role in enabling ordinary people and small and medium sized enterprises to bring large claims against netter-resources companies and institutions.

He said: “For many claimants, LFAs are not just an important pathway to justice; they could be their only route to redress against well-resourced corporations with deep pockets.”

On the prospect of better legal aid provisions, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Conservative) said that “in the real world, there is little prospect of a government of any colour massively increasing the scope of civil legal aid. We must therefore be realistic about what will be in its place. Third-party litigation funding provides an important means to enable people to access justice.”

Unusually, there was a lot of support from legal minds for the bill to be retrospective, which would usually be a large rule of law concern.

The minister said that the legality and propriety of the proposed retrospection, including its compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights, has been considered carefully.

He said that, were the bill prospective only, there would be uncertainty as to the enforceability of agreements entered into before the PACCAR judgment but where the claim is concluded after the act comes into force.

Finally, the minister said that the lord chancellor has asked the Civil Justice Council to undertake a review of the third-party litigation funding market in England and Wales.

This review will look at the need for greater safeguards for claimants, regulation of the sector and the possibility of caps on the returns made to funders.

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