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Westminster weekly update: Parliament prorogues bills receive royal assent
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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1. Overseas Operations Bill completes journey through Parliament
The Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill was debated in both Houses this week, as amendments were floated and agreed between the Commons and Lords.
The Commons’ decision to water down a previous Lords amendment and ensure the presumption against prosecution still applied to war crimes (although not genocide, torture and crimes against humanity) was challenged vociferously, and an amendment was once again tabled by Lord Robertson of Port Ellen (Labour), which the government ultimately confirmed it would accept.
The Law Society has repeatedly briefed that the presumption against prosecution should not apply to genocide, torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes, as a bare minimum.
Defence Minister Baroness Goldie announced the decision, and confirmed the government’s rationale for now excluding war crimes from the presumption after arguing for its inclusion in the Commons was due to “the very real concerns in both Houses that all offences that fall within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, including war crimes, should be excluded,” and to “prevent any further perceived damage to the UK’s reputation in respect of our ongoing commitment to upholding the rule of law and our international obligations.
Lord Robertson, when speaking to the amendment, said the government “listened to the chorus of criticism that took place.” He went on to ask “Why was it so widespread and deep? … it was principally because they believed that the reputation of our Armed Forces would be damaged by singling them out for what the Law Society called a ‘quasi-statute of limitations’.”
In a later debate, Lord Robertson listed the Law Society alongside the Bingham Centre, Liberty, and the British Legion as offering “detailed advice and intelligent, perceptive and constructive criticism of the bill.
The bill therefore passes with two major recommendations from the Law Society met: the removal of the duty to consider derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights and the removal of the aforementioned offences from the presumption against prosecution. It received royal assent on 29 April.
On Wednesday morning 28 April it was announced that the European Parliament had ratified the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement (TCA), which has been provisionally in force since 1 January.
The TCA provides legal certainty for solicitors and their firms and, more broadly, other professional and business services. It also provides for a broader institutional architecture that will allow for a regular dialogue between the UK and the EU.
Ratification of the TCA paves the way for the ability to continue smooth data transfers between the bloc and the UK – vital in so many transactions – while the approval process for the draft UK adequacy decisions continues.
The fact the TCA has been voted through also means the UK will avoid losing the provisions on judicial cooperation in criminal matters and delays to frontline police decision-making.
The agreement sets out the general principle of permitting home-title practice of UK solicitors in the EU.
However, this does not result in much increased market access for UK solicitors in the EU compared to other non-EU lawyers. Nor does it change the fact that, post-Brexit, UK solicitors and law firms are subject to 27 different regulatory regimes, one for each EU member state, each with different rules affecting their ability to provide services to clients.
On Thursday 29 April Parliament prorogued, marking the end of this parliamentary session. Both the Commons and the Lords will return for the Queen’s speech on Tuesday 11 May.
During the final day of the session, several bills on which the Law Society has worked closely with MPs and Peers to provide briefings and table amendments achieved royal assent and became acts. These include the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) act, the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing act, the National Security and Investment act and the Domestic Abuse act.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which the Law Society has also conducted extensive work on, will be carried over into the next session.
On Wednesday 28 April the Joint Committee on Human Rights held its first session as part of its inquiry into the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
The Committee heard from practitioners, monitoring groups and the police on the provisions within the bill to change how protests are policed and to provide more powers to place conditions upon them.
Witnesses raised concerns that the bill would have significant implications for the right to protest, stating that in their view the bill would have a “chilling” impact on civil liberties. Use of terms like “distress” and “unease” within the legislation were also ill-defined and too vague to have a meaningful interpretation, in the view of the panellists.
The latter half of the session heard evidence from policing bodies, who felt existing powers were not enough to police the new kinds protests carried out by groups like Extinction Rebellion, and argued that the legislation would help them to respond to the extensive challenges these could present.
The Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill is currently going through Parliament and will have its committee stage after the return of Parliament for the new session on 11 May.
On Thursday 29 April members of the House of Lords questioned the Building Safety and Communities Minister, Lord Greenhalgh, on issues related to leaseholds.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour) began by highlighting the issue of property management companies charging leaseholders significant service fees for the upkeep of communal areas. Lord Greenhalgh stated that the government’s view is that fees should be “justifiable, transparent and communicated effectively”.
In response to a question from Lord Berkeley (Labour), the Minister laid out the government’s two-step approach to leasehold reform. The first step would be a “ground rents bill” which will be announced in the Queen’s Speech, and the second step would be wider reform proposals around enfranchisement, right to manage and other matters, which he said would take around a year to prepare.
The Commons and the Lords prorogued on Thursday 29 April and will return for the Queen's Speech on Tuesday 11 May.
If you made it this far...
The Law Society has this week submitted its evidence to the government’s consultation on judicial review reform. In our response, we argue that, in the words of Law Society President I. Stephanie Boyce, “proposed changes to the ways in which legal challenges can be brought against the state would make life easier for the government at the expense of accountability and access to justice."