Westminster update: Economic Crime Bill approved by House of Commons

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1. Economic Crime Bill approved by the House of Commons

The Economic Crimes (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill has been approved by the House of Commons on Monday, March 7, with an accelerated schedule providing for all stages of the debate to take place in a single day.

We welcomed :

  • presentation of the bill and informed MPs of our support for the principles and objectives of the legislation
  • the government’s overriding ambition to improve transparency of land ownership in the UK, and
  • creation of the new register of overseas entities, which we have been supporting since its first proposal in 2017

Our presentation nevertheless identified ways to strengthen the bill and fill any potential gaps in the new framework. Our recommendations were cited by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Justice, Sir Bob Neill (Conservative), who referred to the Law Society five times during the proceedings.

In particular, Neill highlighted our concern about the possibility of a gap between a person with significant control and a beneficial owner – which we believe needs to be reflected in the provisions of the bill – and echoed our call for clarification of the relationship between the new regime and the existing frameworks.

Debate minister Paul Scully noted Neill’s concerns and agreed to look into them.

The wider debate also saw discussion of law firms acting on behalf of Russian clients. Liam Byrne (Labour) proposed an amendment calling on the government to establish an inquiry into the use of strategic prosecutions against public participation (SLAPP), which was not put to the vote.

The only amendments adopted by the Commons are those proposed by the government. Of these, the most important were:

  • an amendment increasing the date of implementation of the new register of overseas entities from 18 months after the enactment of the bill to 6 months, and
  • a series of amendments simplifying the process by which a minister can make designations for the purposes of the sanctions regulations

After debates in the House of Commons, the bill was debated at second reading in the House of Lords on Wednesday 9 March. Committee stage and all remaining stages will take place on Monday next week, and any amendments will be agreed between the two chambers in the following days.

Find out what’s changing and read our briefing

2. Backlog of courts: MPs criticize the government’s “skinny” objective

The Public Accounts Committee published its report on the backlog of criminal courts on Wednesday March 9, which criticized the Government’s aim of reducing the backlog at the Crown Court to 53,000 cases. The target was described in the report as “modest” and “skinny”.

The Law Society was cited in the report, which highlighted our evidence on the strong pressures on recruiting and retaining lawyers. We welcomed the report and underlined the urgent need to invest in the capacity of the entire justice system. In particular, we called for the implementation of the 15% increase in legal aid rates recommended by the Independent Criminal Legal Aid Review.

The committee also discussed how long cases take and recommended that the Department of Justice explore with the judiciary what reasonable expectations can be set for how long it takes for a case to be resolved in the Crown Court.

The report made other suggestions on judicial recruitment and argued that the government would not be able to recruit enough judges to properly tackle the court backlog. The report also feared that judicial diversity was being “overlooked” as the Justice Department tries to appoint more judges to hear cases.

The government will respond to the report and its recommendations by May.

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3. Civil legal aid: peers endorse early counseling pilots

The peers approved a pilot project to legal aid for early advice in housing, debt and social benefits on Thursday March 10, following approval by the House of Commons last month. The first pilot councils will start in April and last until March 2024, in Manchester and Middlesbrough.

The Law Society was mentioned twice in the debate, with Lord Thomas of Gresford (Liberal Democrat) noting our research that the link between early advice for legal issues and downstream benefits is “persuasive”. Labour’s Shadow Justice spokesperson, Lord Ponsonby, also highlighted our legal aid desert maps showing the limited number of legal aid providers in the pilot areas.

Justice Minister Lord Wolfson welcomed the pilots and said they were needed to provide ‘strong evidence’ on the value of early advice. He noted that the evidence collected by other groups was not “quantitative”.

Lord Wolfson also defended the three hours of advice available under the pilot, saying there is currently little evidence of how much time participants would use and that the pilot would help establish this.

4. Nationality and Borders Bill completes report stage

The Nationality and Borders Bill completed report stage Tuesday (March 8). The peers debated elements of the bill that would give the immigration court powers to fine practitioners who it says are wasting court resources.

Baroness McIntosh (Conservative) proposed an amendment to remove these powers from the Bill. She argued they could set a dangerous precedent and discourage legal representatives from taking cases, who might fear being fined for acting on behalf of their clients. Baroness McIntosh also added that lawyers are already well regulated and further powers are unnecessary.

Lord Sharpe, the government’s home affairs spokesman, said the government was committed to making the immigration and asylum system more efficient. He noted that some legal representatives were wasting judicial resources during immigration proceedings.

Lord Sharpe also argued that, provided a legal representative was acting reasonably, there would be no need to impose a fine, so there should be no effect on legal representation.

The Bill will begin its third reading in the House of Lords on March 14.

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The Law Society will work closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills and inquiries:

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