Westminster update: select committees hear evidence on coronavirus response

Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.

Houses of Parliament

One thing you need to do

We've published new guidance on EU Legal Professional Privilege post-Brexit, which reflects ongoing discussions on EU LPP for UK practitioners, especially those operating in the EU as third country lawyers following the end of the transitional period.

See our guidance on EU LPP

Five things you need to know

1. Updated coronavirus support for solicitors

As the coronavirus crisis continues, we've continued our work advocating on behalf of our members, and working with the profession, regulators and the government to support solicitors through this crisis.

With the extension of the lockdown for at least another three weeks, there will undoubtedly be new issues which solicitors and firms begin to face. As always, you can contact us through email at coronavirus@lawsociety.org.uk.

Last week, HMCTS published the first set of figures on audio and video hearings, following their increased use in response to Covid-19. These figures, reported by individual courts and tribunals, will provide a weekly summary of the number of hearings that have taken place using audio and video technology in HMCTS since 19 March 2020.

Subsequently, the president of the Family Division has announced a two-week rapid consultation on remote hearings in the Family Court. The consultation will seek to gather evidence from families with children and all professionals working in the family justice system.

Read the full announcement and contribute to the consultation.

Over the past week we have also updated our frequently asked questions, and published new guidance to assist practitioners.

Our online tool can be used to check the government support available for your firm. By answering a few simple questions you will be able to receive a tailored report.

In addition, we have published a new interactive map, which helps solicitors and members of the public find out which courts and tribunal buildings continue to be operational during the coronavirus pandemic.

Read our advice and support

Check out our new map showing operational courts

Use our online tool to find what support is available for your firm

2. Government confirms they will not seek transition period extension

Last Wednesday (15 April) UK chief Brexit negotiator David Frost informed the EU negotiating team that “the UK does not intend to ask for an extension to the transition period, which ends on December 31 this year.” He has also publicly stated that the UK would not accept a transition period if the EU asked for one.

This comes alongside news that dates have been agreed for the next three rounds of video-conference negotiation:

  • w/c 20 April
  • w/c 11 May
  • w/c 1 June

While the agendas for these negotiation rounds have not yet been made public, we will continue to engage at key points to push for services, and in particular legal services, to be prioritised and acknowledged as a central economic strength of the UK. A special UK-EU meeting to take stock of progress is still expected to go ahead in June.

3. Measures to support domestic abuse victims

We know that the Covid-19 lockdown measures have made it even more difficult for domestic abuse victims to get time away from their abuser – leaving many trapped in an increasingly volatile situation.

During Saturday’s (11 April) government press conference, home secretary Priti Patel MP announced an additional £2m to support charities to further expand services for those at risk of domestic abuse. The government launched a "You Are Not Alone" campaign to raise public awareness of domestic abuse and signpost resources.

In addition, the Legal Aid Agency have made amendments to evidence requirements in cases of domestic violence and child abuse. They have expanded how domestic violence requirements may be evidenced to make it easier for victims of domestic and child abuse to access legal aid during this difficult period.

We will continue to make the case for non-means tested legal aid for domestic abuse cases and calling for a relaxation of the usual “gateway” evidence requirements so that solicitors, as well as frontline medical professionals, can certify that an individual has experienced domestic abuse and allow them access to legal aid.

Read the new guidance

Find out more information

4. Home Office Committee hears evidence on domestic abuse during the lockdown

Last Tuesday (15 April) the Home Affairs Committee took evidence on the preparedness of the Home Office for COVID-19. The session was split into two parts, and focussed on the implications of the pandemic for victims of domestic abuse.

Giving evidence were:

  • Dame Vera Baird DBE QC, Victims' Commissioner for England and Wales
  • Nicole Jacobs, Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales
  • Anne Longfield OBE, Children's Commissioner for England

During the session, Nicole Jacobs said there are many obstacles to victims seeking support and it is crucial that the government seeks to alleviate some of these barriers. She cited legal aid as a key example, stating that it needs to be accessible immediately to victims of domestic abuse to ensure that they are able to access support. She also referred to Domestic Violence Protection Orders, noting that police would like to use them but are sometimes unable to do so because of court closures and other issues. She said that all of this could ‘get unlocked’ much more quickly if a cross-governmental working group were to be established.

Dame Vera Baird said that the criminal justice system and the family justice system need to do more to support victims, and called for legal aid to be granted to everyone, without means testing of any kind, and for the restriction on recourse to public funds for migrants to be scrapped. She said that the courts must make clear that these people are a priority and suggested that hotlines linked directly to legal assistance be made available to anyone who needs help.

Baird said that while custody-related court orders should be fulfilled, contact between parents, particularly around concerns regarding observance of lockdown restrictions, is causing tension and leading to more domestic abuse cases. She said there needs to be an easy way to resolve disputes over contact as a matter of urgency.

Baird said the Crown Prosecution Service has announced that domestic abuse cases have been made a priority, although there are difficulties with accessing courts. She argued that the best solution is to promote Domestic Abuse Protection Orders as the tool of choice amongst police and ensure that they can be fulfilled as quickly as possible.

Laura Farris MP (Con) asked whether any specific issues have arisen during the crisis that should be addressed within the Domestic Abuse Bill. Responding, Nicole Jacobs said that the things that she would have been campaigning for prior to the crisis have just been bought more strongly to the fore, including the need for measures to address the ‘postcode lottery’ of services and no recourse to public funds for migrants, as well as an expansion of the statutory duty proposed in the Bill beyond housing services. Anne Longfield reiterated this and said there needs to be an emphasis within the Bill on funding and how it will be used.

Watch the session in full

5. Treasury Select Committee hears evidence on finance sector

On Wednesday the Treasury Select Committee heard evidence as part of their inquiry into the impact of coronavirus.

The witnesses were:

  • Stephen Jones, CEO, UK Finance
  • Stephen Haddrill, director general, Finance and Leasing Association
  • Sam Wood, CEO, Prudential Regulation Authority
  • Sarah Breeden, executive director of UK Banks, Prudential Regulation Authority
  • Chris Willard, interim CEO, Financial Conduct Authority

Jones began by outlining how the government has clarified the business loan scheme in the past three weeks, extending access to any business that was ‘financially viable’ on March 31. This viability is judged by their performances over the last few years. He said banks are required to assess their risk exposure (20%) and the government’s risk exposure (80%) before making loans, and to be aware of fraud risks.

The private sector witnesses encouraged businesses to reach out to lenders if concerned, who will be able to provide more information on what loans and financial assistance is available to them. They also stressed that they are keen for government to make a decision early on what should be done if the measures are to go on beyond the original three month timeline.

Rushanara Ali MP (Labour) asked whether there was a case for government and bank support to ‘non-viable’ small businesses that form part of essential work during this crisis. Jones said that that is for government to decide, and that banks will do all they can within the parameters they are set. Jones expected that new loans to large businesses will be available in the last 10 days of April, backed by Government.

The witnesses all voiced the argument that it is for government to make decisions on which businesses should be supported by the new loan schemes. Willard announced that the FCA is setting up a small businesses unit to deal with relevant regulatory matters, overlooking bank lending to small businesses. He said that most small businesses sit outside the FCA’s aegis, and much of their activity is not regulated, although they can access the financial ombudsman and the FCA if concerned about their treatment by banks.

Watch the session in full

Coming up this week

Next week will see the House of Commons return from the Easter recess in a hybrid format, with MPs allowed to take part in proceedings virtually via videolink.

Tuesday will see Justice oral questions in the Commons, followed by Attorney General Questions on Thursday.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights will take evidence from lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC MP on Monday, while the Treasury Select Committee, Home Affairs Selection Committee and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee will each also hear evidence later in the week.

View upcoming parliamentary business

If you made it this far

The Ministry of Justice and HM Courts and Tribunals Service have announced that the work of the courts and tribunals will be consolidated into fewer building for public safety reasons during the coronavirus pandemic.

See our interactive heat map to find out which courts are open in your area.