Westminster weekly: Law Society hosts Lord Chancellor's speech
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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Five things you need to know
1. Lord Chancellor speaks at the Law Society on court recovery
On Friday 4 June, the Law Society hosted the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, for a speech on the justice system's recovery from COVID-19. He thanked the “hidden heroes” that had kept the justice system running and pledged to get it “firing on all cylinders”.
The Lord Chancellor outlined the steps that had been taken to respond to COVID-19, including the rollout of remote hearings and Nightingale courts that kept the wheels of justice turning. He also set out how the Government will be responding to the cases backlog in the courts, by removing the cap on sitting days for this year and creating ‘super courts’ to hear the most complicated cases.
Looking to the future of the justice system, the Lord Chancellor pledged to make it more dynamic and efficient. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would help to futureproof the courts, he said, while the use of alternative dispute resolution measures will become a mainstream part of the justice system. Closing, the Lord Chancellor committed to learning the lessons of the pandemic and to use this as an opportunity to “revitalise justice” and how it operates in this country.
2. Law Society referenced in Leasehold Reform Bill
On Wednesday 9 June, the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill began committee stage in the House of Lords. The Law Society was mentioned three times during the debate by two peers, Lord Young of Cookham (Conservative) and Lord Stunell (Lib Dem) in relation to concerns we highlighted about the risk of a two-tier market in leaseholds emerging, outlined in what Lord Young described as “the helpful briefing for the bill from the Law Society”.
Much of the debate focused on ground rents in existing leases, with a number of amendments tabled by peers aiming at capping ground rents in such leases, or giving leaseholders the right to buy out the ground rent in their lease.
In response to these amendments, the minister, Lord Greenhalgh, argued that reducing the ground rent in existing leases to a peppercorn would raise complex issues and could have negative consequences for the operation of the property market and external investments, such as those by pension funds. He said that reform of enfranchisement would be addressed in a separate bill, due to be introduced in the next session of Parliament.
In accordance with the conventions of the House of Lords, all amendments were withdrawn without a vote. Committee stage will continue next week on Monday 14 and Wednesday 16 June.
3. Lord Chancellor gives evidence to Constitution Committee
On Wednesday 9 June, the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, gave evidence to the House of Lords Constitution committee. During the session, Buckland expanded on his previous announcement that he was considering reforming the role of the Lord Chancellor. He criticised the 2005 Constitutional Reform Act, which previously overhauled the duties of the Lord Chancellor, saying that he “felt the process was rather rushed”. He continued that the role of Lord Chancellor is in danger of becoming “decorative and ornamental”, and said the Government will consider whether holders of the office must be legally qualified in future.
During the session, peers quizzed Buckland on several areas of interest to the Law Society.
Lord Hope (Crossbench) asked if the Government still intends to introduce reforms recommended by the Government’s consultation on judicial review. The Lord Chancellor said that the consultation process was still under analysis by his officials and that a decision had not yet been taken on whether to pursue any of the additional recommendations, although this was still a possibility.
Baroness Drake (Labour) raised a report published by the committee that expressed concerns about the lack of data assessing the impact of remote hearings, asking when it would be available. The Lord Chancellor was not able to offer a timeline but stressed the importance of publishing accurate data and said that he would encourage HMCTS to release data as soon as possible.
Lady Suttie (Lib Dem) inquired whether criticisms of judges and lawyers by government ministers concerned the Lord Chancellor. He responded by stating that in a democracy people will inevitably come under criticism. He said the difference for the judiciary is that they cannot respond to criticism, and that when the judiciary came under unfair attack he would step in to defend it.
4. Labour opposition day debate on victims and justice
On Wednesday 9 June, the Labour Party held an opposition day debate on ‘protecting the public and justice for victims’.
Shadow Lord Chancellor David Lammy MP opened the debate calling for a suite of measures to reform the justice system, including better access to legal aid for victims of domestic abuse, the fast tracking of sexual offense cases and binding indicators to hold the Government to account. He echoed the Law Society’s call for more Nightingale courts and no cap on sitting days to tackle the courts backlog.
Responding, the Lord Chancellor reviewed the additional protections put in place for women by the Government, including outlawing revenge porn and further protection for victims of stalking. On the backlog, Buckland noted that there were potential legislative changes coming down the track to enable Crown Courts and magistrates’ courts to sit at the same time to enable cases to move between them immediately. He said success in tackling the backlog would be the number of cases that take six months or longer dropping to below 20% of all cases.
5. Environment Bill has Lords second reading
On Monday 7 June, the Lords held the second reading of the Environment Bill. During the debate, a number of Lords expressed misgivings over the independence of the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) that will be created by the bill – an issue that the Law Society raised in our briefing ahead of the debate.
Lord Oates (Lib Dem) summarised the view of critical peers when he said “where we needed a powerful, independent office for environmental protection, backed up by the full force of the law, the bill gives us a hobbled regulator”. Speaking on behalf of the Government, the minister Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park closed the debate by arguing that “the Government are committed to ensuring that the OEP is established as an independent body”.
Peers also criticised provisions in the bill that would erode environmental and judicial review. Lord Oates noted that statements of non-compliance introduced in the bill would facilitate a situation in which the courts could find that a public authority has failed to comply with environmental law, but that this would not in itself invalidate the decision of the public authority in question. Lord Duncan of Springbank (Conservative) stated the bill would also allow an unlawful act that is causing environmental damage to continue if one of the individuals affected can claim they have been adversely affected.
In his closing remarks, Lord Goldsmith argued that the “OEP’s enforcement powers… will operate more effectively than those of the EU Commission”. He said that on an environmental review the OEP will be able to apply for judicial review remedies, which the Court of Justice of the European Union cannot issue to member states.
The next stage of the bill will be the first sitting of its committee stage on Monday 21 June.
The Law Society will be working closely with MPs and peers and contributing to a number of upcoming bills, debates and inquiries in Parliament. In the coming weeks we'll be focusing on the following bills.
The bill is currently going through committee stage in the House of Commons, with the committee scheduled to sit on every Tuesday and Thursday until Thursday 24 June. We've briefed MPs ahead of relevant debates and will be submitting written evidence to the committee before the deadline on 24 June.
The first sitting of the bill’s House of Lords committee stage will take place on Monday 21 June. The Law Society will be briefing peers on our key concerns with the bill.
The Law Society has already briefed peers for the bill’s committee stage, and the bill is scheduled for two further sittings of committee stage in the House of Lords on Monday 14 June and Tuesday 22 June.
The Law Society has already briefed peers for the bill’s committee stage, and the bill will have two more sittings of committee stage on Monday 14 June and Tuesday 16 June.
The Law Society will be submitting written evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry into co-habiting couples by the deadline of 4 July.
If you made it this far...
Read our guidance on the criminal legal aid review, warning that the criminal defence profession could collapse if the Government does not increase funding.