Westminster update: Law Society president testifies in parliament

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1. Legal aid in criminal matters: the president of the Bar testifies before the deputies

The President of the Bar, I. Stephanie Boyce, appeared before the Select Committee on Justice on Wednesday, April 27 to discuss the government’s response to the independent review of criminal legal aid.

Boyce explained how the government’s proposals for lawyers fall short of the review’s central recommendation of a 15 per cent increase in criminal legal aid rates, instead proposing a package 40 per cent lower than what Sir Christopher Bellamy’s review called for minimal.

Boyce also pointed to the crisis facing our justice system, with the number of criminal legal aid firms having halved since 2007 and only 4% of the profession under the age of 35.

If the 15% increase in criminal legal aid rates recommended by Sir Christopher is not implemented, these trends will continue, the backlog will increase and we could see the collapse of our judicial system.

Bar Council President Mark Fenhalls QC testified alongside Boyce. He said while lawyers will benefit from the 15% increase in rates under the package, many are choosing to walk away from the profession.

Fenhalls called for investing in the criminal justice system at the earliest stage, including legal aid for lawyers working in police stations.

Legal Aid Minister James Cartlidge also testified before the committee. He acknowledged the government’s plans were “not exactly what” Sir Christopher had recommended, but defended the government’s proposed investment in criminal legal aid as an “important package”.

Cartlidge said his priority was to get funding to the professions quickly and the government was working as fast as possible to achieve this.

Read our response to the government’s proposals

2. Bar quoted in the report of a parliamentary committee on the judicial backlog

The Justice Select Committee released its court backlog and court capacity report April 27.

The report acknowledged our concerns about the lack of staff, judges and practitioners available to deal with cases, calling for strategic planning and long-term resources for the courts.

We testified before the committee and were quoted in the report, which made our argument that more data is needed on the use of video and audio technology in the courts.

We have been concerned about the effect that remote hearings may have on access to justice.

The committee also recommended the creation of a court inspection service to help highlight problems in the justice system. We welcomed this recommendation and look forward to working with the Department of Justice on its implementation.

However, without an appropriate investment in criminal legal aid, including the 15% increase in criminal legal aid rates recommended by the recent Department of Justice independent review, it is unlikely that the government will be able to to address court backlogs or improve capacity.

Read our response to the report

3. Judicial Review and Courts Act Becomes Law

The Judicial Review and Courts Bill received Royal Assent on Thursday, April 28 in a swift government decision to enact it before Parliament prorogued.

The main development took place in consideration of the debate on the Lords’ amendments in the House of Commons on Tuesday, April 26, with the government agreeing to remove the legal presumption from section one.

The presumption was our main concern with the bill, and its removal is a major influential victory for the Law Society.

This means that the long-established principle of judicial review – that all remedies are discretionary – will continue and ensure fair results appropriate to the circumstances of the case at hand.

MPs and their peers debated the proposed amendments to the bill, with opinions remaining divided until the very end.

Prominent MPs such as Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the Justice Select Committee, voted against the government because it scrapped the Lords’ amendment to make legal aid free for bereaved families at inquests.

Andy Slaughter, shadow solicitor general, said that in investigations, the state has unlimited access to taxpayer funding, while grieving families are often forced to pay huge sums of money out of their own pockets, or Good to use crowdfunding.

Major victory for justice and the rule of law: find out more

4. The Nationality and Borders Act comes into force

The Nationality and Borders Act completed its parliamentary stages on Wednesday April 27, before receiving Royal Assent and becoming law.

The law will make far-reaching changes to the UK immigration process, creating a two-tier asylum system based on whether refugees travel to the UK directly or via another safe country.

Changes will also be made to the amount of evidence asylum seekers must have, which may make it harder for them to prove they are in danger in their home country.

The law will also give the Court’s Procedure Committee the power to fine lawyers if it finds they are engaging in “inappropriate” behavior. This could have a chilling effect on lawyers’ willingness to take on difficult cases as they could be exposed to financial penalties and would also apply to lawyers working for the Home Office.

We have expressed serious concerns that the law could breach the UK’s international obligations, including those under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

5. Royal Assents

Three other bills on which we worked closely with MPs and peers also received Royal Assent:

  • Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act: This law strengthens sentencing laws for serious crimes and imposes a new legal obligation on different parts of the public sector to work together to combat serious violence
  • Professional Qualifications Act: this law will allow UK regulators to decide whether a person with overseas qualifications is fit to practice a regulated profession in the UK and will also make it easier for UK professionals to practice abroad
  • Building Safety Act: This Act will enshrine the Building Safety Regulator in law, to provide oversight of the construction of high-risk and residential buildings, with enforcement and sanctioning powers. The law will also seek to implement a series of new measures to protect tenants from the costs of failing historic buildings.

Coming

The 2021/22 session of Parliament ended with a extension announcement Thursday, April 28.

The House of Commons and House of Lords will then sit for the official opening of Parliament on Tuesday May 10.

The Queen’s Speech at the ceremony will set out the government’s legislative program for the next session (2022/23).

Thursday, May 5 will see municipal elections taking place in parts of England and Wales.

Although the government’s Elections Act received Royal Assent this week, voters will not yet have to comply with its new voter ID requirementas this will be phased in through secondary legislation over the next two years.

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