Westminster update: spending review gives cash boost for justice system

Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.

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1. Spending review gives cash boost for justice system

Last Wednesday, the government released the outcomes of the 2020 spending review, which sets government departments’ budgets for the year 2021-22.

The Ministry of Justice’s budget for 2021-22 will be increased to £10.1 billion, an above inflation increase in total justice spending which meets one of the key asks from our submission to the spending review.

Specifically, the spending review sets aside a total of £561 million in new funding for the justice system in England and Wales. This funding includes:

  • £275 million to manage the downstream demand impact of 20,000 additional police officers and reduce backlogs in the Crown Court caused by COVID-19
  • £40 million to offer additional support to victims of crime, including victims of domestic abuse
  • £76 million to increase family court and employment tribunal capacity to reduce backlogs
  • £43 million to ensure that courts and prisons remain COVID-safe
  • £105 million for improvements to the court estate

This increase in funding for the justice system is a win for us, after consistently arguing for such an increase in our representations to the Treasury ahead of the spending review. The funding to keep courts and prisons COVID-safe also reflects a key concern of our members and another theme of our representations to the government during the pandemic.

Other key announcements from the spending review included a new £2.9 billion Restart scheme designed to help over a million people who have been unemployed for over a year to find new work, and a freeze to the business rates multiplier for 2021-22.

£63 million has been provided to tackle economic crime, including support for the National Economic Crime Centre; £400 million has been set aside to recruit 6,000 new police officers; and £4 billion will be provided over four years to create new prison places.

Read the chancellor’s statement

Read the full spending review document

Read our submission to the spending review

2. Lords support expiry of Coronavirus Act mental health easements

Last Wednesday, the House of Lords debated the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Expiry of Mental Health Provisions) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020. The debate followed the House of Commons’ approval of the regulations last Monday.

We briefed peers in support of the regulations, and we were mentioned six times during the debate by three different peers, including the health minister, Lord Bethell. Lord Bethell noted that “the decision to expire these provisions has been positively received by a wide range of stakeholders – including the Law Society”.

Lord Bilimoria (Crossbench) mentioned us four times, quoting from our briefing as he noted our support for the regulations. He also referenced our recommendation that the government consider expiring the provisions under Schedule 12 to the Coronavirus Act as well. Meanwhile the shadow health spokesperson, Baroness Thornton, said she was “grateful, like other noble Lords, for the excellent brief by the Law Society and its support for these regulations.”

Lord Bilimoria, Baroness Thornton and Baroness Fox of Buckley (non-affiliated) all noted that the regulations do not expire the easements under schedule 12 to the Coronavirus Act, which relate to the Care Act 2014 and the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014.

Lord Bilimoria cited our support for expiring these provisions, stating that “the Law Society also recommends that the Government consider expiring the provisions under Schedule 12 to the Coronavirus Act alongside the expiration of those under Schedule 8 being implemented by these regulations.”

Both Lord Bilimoria and Baroness Thornton asked the minister whether the government would consider expiring the provisions under schedule 12 to the Act, though the minister did not provide a response during the debate.

The regulations will now proceed to a vote of approval in the House of Lords, which is expected to pass given the opposition’s support for the regulations. As the House of Commons has already approved the regulations, once this vote of approval has passed the regulations will come into force.

Read the transcript of the debate

Read our Law under Lockdown report

3. Law firms give evidence on National Security and Investment Bill

Last Tuesday and Thursday, oral evidence was presented to the House of Commons’ Public Bill Committee on the National Security and Investment Bill.

We briefed members ahead of the debate outlining concerns around potential administrative burdens and uncertainty for investors as a result of the proposed regime.

The committee heard evidence from law firms Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP, Slaughter and May, Herbert Smith Freehills and Simons Muirhead and Burton. Michael Leiter, head of national security and Committee on Foreign Investments in Skadden Arps, stressed that companies working on new technologies would require a “rapid review process” as investments depend on restricted time frames.

Leiter stated that while the UK is a popular place to invest, its market size is not “inherently attractive” to investors compared to the US market. He argued that the secretary of state would need to be confident that investors could have transactions reviewed within 30 to 45 days. Leiter praised the Bill for including a “full and complete review by [the] courts” as being “central and important” to its successful implementation.

Lisa Wright and Christian Boney, partners at Slaughter and May, presented the importance of guidance on the factors the government considers under a national security assessment. They argued that the unit brought in to review transactions must be “streamlined, interactive and responsive”.

Wright and Boney considered the Bill’s potential to ensure the UK was “in line with major international peers” but emphasised that notifications needed to be turned around “within sensible timeframes” in order to not have a negative impact on potential investments.

James Palmer, senior partner at Herbert Freehills and Smith, and David Offenbach from Simmons Muirhead and Burton, gave opposing evidence about widening the definition of national security.

Offenbach stated the ‘public interest’ test ensured that no harmful transactions slipped through the net. Palmer argued that the inclusion of the ‘public interest’ test could open politicians to being swayed by influence.

While Palmer applauded the government for the work done on the Bill, he maintained that there was a cost and risk to small businesses as a result of the significant increase in transaction reviews. The Public Bill Committee will continue to hear evidence next week.

Read evidence presented on Tuesday 24 November

Read evidence presented on Thursday 26 November

4. Incoming master of the rolls and lord chancellor speak on civil justice reform and legal innovation

Last Tuesday, the lord chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP and Sir Geoffrey Vos, the incoming master of the rolls, gave speeches at the launch of TheCityUK’s Legal Services 2020 report.

Sir Geoffrey spoke about upcoming civil justice reform and technology, as well as the value of legal services to the economy. Touching on the availability of civil justice to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), Sir Geoffrey said there were millions of claims every year and the inability to solve these claims quickly is a drag on the economy. He noted the paper-based County Court system was “years out of date” and “inherently slow”. Digitisation is essential to create a system that will allow businesses and individuals to perform at their economic best.

Sir Geoffrey also said we should try to create a streamlined online civil justice system to avoid the delays of the current system and to allow disputes to be dealt with quickly. He cited British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal as an example of this.

In his speech, the lord chancellor thanked the legal services sector for its resiliency over the past year and noted the economic importance of the sector. He added that legal services are an enabler of business confidence and underpinned the UK’s economic success. The lord chancellor spoke about the difference lawtech was making “from smart contracting to electronic dispute resolution”, and noted the £2m that has been committed to LawTechUK to support innovation.

On Brexit, the lord chancellor said the government position remained that they want to rejoin the Lugano Convention and are awaiting the response of the other contracting parties. He gave an update on the recently agreed free trade agreement with Japan, and on the ongoing negotiations with the United States, Australia, Brazil and other nations.

Read the lord chancellor’s speech

Read Sir Geoffrey Vos’s speech

Read the Legal Services 2020 report

5. England national lockdown ends in tiers

Last Monday, the prime minister announced that the national lockdown in England will conclude on Wednesday 2 December, and will be replaced with a regional tiered approach to restrictions.

The new three tiers resemble the previous local tiered system, although some of the restrictions in each tier have been adjusted. The regulations with further details will be published next week.

Last Thursday, the government announced which regions would face which restrictions. Birmingham, Manchester and Kent were among the regions placed into tier 3 facing the strongest restrictions, while the capital London was placed in tier 2. Cornwall was placed in tier 1.

Meanwhile, last Tuesday, a relaxation of the restrictions over the Christmas period was announced. Between 23 and 27 December you can make a Christmas bubble with friends and family.

Read more about the rules over the Christmas period

Find out what local restrictions your area has

Coming up next week

On Tuesday, the Treasure Committee will consider the Spending Review including the economic impact of COVID-19. The Justice Select Committee will hear evidence from the lord chancellor on COVID-19’s impact on prison, probation and the court systems. The Environment Bill continues in the committee stage.

In the Lords, the draft European Union Withdrawal (Consequential Modifications) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 will be discussed on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill enters the third reading stage and the Constitution Committee will consider the implications of COVID-19.

View all upcoming parliamentary business

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Solicitors and firms should act now to prepare for the end of the transition period.

Read our guidance on how you and your firm can prepare for 31 December