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Westminster update: sanctions on Russia debated in parliament

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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Read our statement on the ongoing situation in Ukraine and our continued solidarity with and support for the Ukrainian people, our members in the region, the Ukrainian National Bar Association and the Ukrainian Bar Association.

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1. Sanctions on Russia debated in Parliament

Earlier in the week, MPs debated the sanctions being placed on Russian individuals and businesses following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Regulations putting these sanctions into effect were agreed unanimously in the House of Commons.

During the debates, concerns were raised by some MPs about UK law firms advising individuals who have been subjected to sanctions.

The most notable contribution came from Bob Seely (Conservative) who used parliamentary privilege to name some solicitors and firms working on behalf of Russian clients.

He spoke at length about legal representatives “enabling” criminal activity and noted the Magnitsky case.

He also called for a foreign lobbying bill and amendments to libel law and data protection law as well as arguing that the UK needs to do more on SLAPPs – strategic lawsuits against public participation – which he alleged involved “aggressive lawyers seek to intimidate campaigning groups, journalists and the like”.

He called for strengthening of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, and said he was “told by whistleblowers working for the big companies that they do not do proper client checks and that 'know your client' checks are non-existent for some of them”.

Justin Madders (Labour) echoed similar concerns but argued that “no matter how distasteful we might find it and how damaging it might be to those law firms' reputations, even oligarchs are entitled to legal representation because that is part of what makes us a free and democratic society”.

He added that the “best way to deal with these issues is to ensure that the laws are watertight in the first place”.

We have issued guidance to firms on the UK sanctions regime to help them understand the steps that must be taken to safeguard the UK and the reputation of the profession.

Read our guidance on the sanctions regime

2. MPs take evidence from Ministry of Justice permanent secretary

On Tuesday 1 March, the Justice Select Committee heard evidence from Antonia Romeo, permanent secretary to the Ministry of Justice, focusing both on:

  • the effect of sanctions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine
  • the state of the legal sector following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions

Romeo told the committee she is unsure whether the Ministry of Justice has sufficient resource and capacity to enforce the sanctions, but said that finding it is a top priority.

She added that joint work is being done to ensure that all parts of the government understand what is being asked of them, and that resources are allocated accordingly.

On the topic of court backlogs, Romeo said she believes driving these down is achievable. She noted that sitting days in the civil courts were 9% higher in January 2022 than they were in February 2020.

Romeo commented that social distancing measures being reduced has helped with the flow of cases, and therefore in tackling the backlog.

Nevertheless, persistent problems were identified with judicial capability, especially in London and the South East.

Romeo said the Ministry of Justice is seeking to hire a number of additional judges as well as looking into whether some district judge roles could be performed by administrators, and whether digitalisation might temper the shortage.

Kevin Sandler, acting chief executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) was also speaking at the session and commented that the picture is improving.

Sandler noted that a common IT platform for all arms of criminal justice is currently being rolled out, with 44% of courts already a part of it.

HMCTS is aiming to have the platform live in 100% of courts later this year.

Digitalisation was noted as a potential tool for reducing the courts backlogs, and streamlining the justice system.

3. Lords pass key amendments to Nationality and Borders Bill

Peers passed a number of amendments, supported by the Law Society, to the Nationality and Borders Bill as it continued its report stage in the House of Lords on Monday 28 February and Wednesday 2 March this week.

The house voted in favour of an amendment from Lord Kerr (Crossbench) to clause 11 by 204 votes to 126.

Lord Kerr noted that the clause would create two categories of refugee dependent on how they arrived in the UK and argued that it both is incompatible with the UN Convention on Refugees, and would mean refugees from Ukraine receive limited help from the UK.

Home Office minister, Baroness Williams, however argued the clause would help distinguish between refugees based on how they arrived in the UK and would act as a deterrent to those who could claim asylum in other safe countries.

Peers also passed an amendment to remove elements of clause 28 and schedule 3 of the bill which allow refugees to be offshored in a third country.

Baroness Stroud (Conservative) argued that there was too much unknown about this policy, including how refugees would be removed to third countries or how they would be returned to the UK. She also highlighted refugees from Ukraine and said they would be subject to offshoring if the bill passed.

Baroness Trafford argued that separate schemes were being established for refugees from Ukraine. She added that further detail on how the offshoring policy would work would depend on the final agreements the UK signed with third countries that agreed to take refugees.

Despite her arguments, the amendment passed by 208 votes to 155.

The bill’s report stage will continue in the Lords next week.

4. Economic Crime Bill introduced

The Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill, which will create a new register of overseas entities, was introduced in parliament on Tuesday 1 March.

The register will require anonymous foreign owners of UK property to reveal their real identities.

Entities who do not declare their ‘beneficial owner’ will face restrictions over selling their property, and those who break the rules could face up to five years in prison.

We support the aims and principles of the legislation. We have been calling for the implementation of the register since it was first proposed in 2017.

The bill will have all of its Commons stages in one day on Monday 7 March, before heading to the House of Lords.

We'll be briefing MPs on our support for the legislation, and our recommendations for tightening up the register and helping with implementation.

Alongside the bill, the government also published a white paper on plans to upgrade Companies House.

Under the proposals, anyone setting up, running, owning or controlling a company in the UK will need to verify their identity with Companies House.

Companies House will be given the power to challenge the information that appears dubious, and will be empowered to inform security agencies of potential wrongdoing.

Read more on what the bill means for law firms

Coming up

We will be working closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills and inquiries:

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