Westminster update: Russia sanctions debated in parliament

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Read our statement on the current situation in Ukraine and our continued solidarity and support for the people of Ukraine, our members in the region, the National Bar Association of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Bar Association.

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1. Sanctions against Russia debated in Parliament

Earlier in the week, MEPs debated sanctions imposed on Russian individuals and businesses following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Regulations implementing these penalties were passed unanimously in the House of Commons.

During the debates, concerns were raised by some MPs about UK law firms advising people under sanctions.

The most notable contribution came from Bob Seely (Conservative) who used parliamentary privilege to name certain lawyers and firms working for Russian clients.

He spoke at length about legal representatives “enabling” criminal activity and noted the Magnitsky Case.

He also called for an Overseas Lobbying Bill and amendments to defamation law and data protection law, while saying the UK needed to do more on SLAPP suits – strategic lawsuits against public participation – which he said involved “aggressive lawyers seeking to intimidate campaign groups, journalists and the like”.

He called for the Solicitors Regulation Authority to be strengthened, and said whistleblowers working for big business had told him they were not carrying out proper customer checks and that ‘know your customer’ checks are non-existent for some of them”.

Justin Madders (Labour) echoed similar concerns, but argued that “no matter how unpleasant it may be for us and how badly it may damage the reputation of these law firms, even the oligarchs are entitled to legal representation because it is part of what makes us a democratic society”.

He added that “the best way to deal with these issues is to make sure the laws are watertight in the first place.”

We have published guidance for businesses on the UK sanctions regime to help them understand the steps that need to be taken to protect the UK and the reputation of the profession.

Read our advice on the sanctions regime

2. MPs collect testimony from the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Justice

Tuesday, March 1, the justice select committee heard the testimony of Antonia RomeoPermanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, covering both:

  • the effect of sanctions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine
  • the state of the legal sector following the lifting of restrictions related to COVID-19

Romeo told the committee she didn’t know if the Justice Department had enough resources and capacity to enforce the sanctions, but said finding her was a top priority.

She added that joint work is underway to ensure that all parts of government understand what is being asked of them and that resources are allocated accordingly.

On court backlogs, Romeo said she believed it was possible to reduce them. She noted that civil court sitting days were 9% higher in January 2022 than they were in February 2020.

Romeo noted that the reduction in social distancing measures has helped manage the flow of cases, and therefore tackle the backlog.

Nevertheless, persistent problems have been identified with judicial capacity, particularly in London and the South East.

Romeo said the Justice Department is looking to hire a number of additional judges and consider whether some district judge roles could be filled by administrators and whether digitization could ease the shortage.

Kevin Sandler, acting chief executive of the HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) also spoke at the session and said the situation was improving.

Sandler noted that a common IT platform across all branches of criminal justice is currently being rolled out, with 44% of courts already part of it.

HMCTS aims to have the platform available in 100% of courts later this year.

Digitization was noted as a potential tool to reduce court backlogs and streamline the court system.

3. Lords pass key amendments to Nationality and Borders Bill

The Peers passed a number of amendments, backed by the Law Society, to the Nationality and Borders Bill as it proceeded through its reporting stage in the House of Lords on monday 28 february and Wednesday March 2 this week.

The house voted in favor of an amendment by Lord Kerr (Crossbench) to Article 11 by 204 votes to 126.

Lord Kerr noted that the clause would create two categories of refugees depending on how they arrived in the UK and argued that it was incompatible with the UN Refugee Convention and would mean that Ukrainian refugees would receive limited help from the UK.

Home Secretary Baroness Williams, however, argued the clause would help distinguish between refugees based on how they arrived in the UK and would have a chilling effect on those who might apply for leave. asylum in other safe countries.

Peers also passed an amendment to remove elements of Article 28 and Schedule 3 of the bill that allow refugees to be relocated to a third country.

Baroness Stroud (Conservative) argued there were too many unknowns about this policy, including how refugees would be returned to third countries or how they would be returned to the UK. She also highlighted refugees from Ukraine and said they would be subject to relocation if the bill passed.

Baroness Trafford argued that separate programs were in place for refugees from Ukraine. She added that further details of how the relocation policy would work would depend on the final agreements the UK would sign with third countries that agreed to take in refugees.

Despite his arguments, the amendment passed by a vote of 208 to 155.

The report stage of the bill will continue in the Lords next week.

4. Economic Crime Bill presented

The Economic Crimes (Transparency and Repression) Billwhich will create a new register of overseas entities, was presented to parliament on Tuesday 1 March.

The register will require anonymous foreign owners of property in the UK to reveal their true identity.

Entities that fail to declare their “beneficial owner” will face restrictions on selling their property, and those who break the rules face up to five years in prison.

We support the objectives and principles of the legislation. We have been calling for the register to be in place since its first proposal in 2017.

The bill will have all its stages in the House of Commons in one day on Monday March 7, before heading to the House of Lords.

We will update MPs on our support for the legislation and our recommendations to strengthen the register and help with implementation.

Along with the bill, the government has also published a white paper on the Companies House modernization projects.

Under the proposals, anyone setting up, running, owning or controlling a business in the UK will have to verify their identity with Companies House.

Companies House will have the power to challenge information that appears questionable and will be empowered to notify security agencies of potential wrongdoing.

Learn more about what the bill means for law firms

Future

We will work closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills and inquiries:

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Read our press release on the announcement