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Public Affairs Update: The Law Society of England and Wales

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Joe Ferreira, Head of Public Affairs and Campaigns, The Law Society

The Law Society’s public affairs and campaigns team is at the heart of our work influencing the government, parliament, and key stakeholders in the UK. We are pleased to provide the following update on the latest developments.

The King’s Speech

King Charles III officially opened a new session of Parliament with the delivery of the King’s Speech on 7 November 2023. The King set out the government’s legislative agenda for the final session before the next general election. The speech, drafted by the government, unveiled a total of 21 Bills, 6 of which were carried over from the previous session of Parliament. The full speech and government briefing can be found here.

Prior to the speech it had been speculated that crime and justice would play a leading role in the government’s plans- which proved correct. The King spoke about “safeguarding the health and security of the British people” and that the Government would legislate for tougher sentences and greater police power. Several Bills were announced in this area including the Criminal Justice Bill, which will cover a wide range of measures from compelling defendants to attend court hearings to strengthening criminal action against the sharing of intimate images; the Sentencing Bill, which will legislate tougher centres for those committing the most heinous of crimes and ensure those convicted remain in custody for the entire duration of their sentence; and the Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Bill which will look to amend powers in the previous Bill around things like end-to-end encryption.

The Law Society welcomes the return of the Victims and Prisoners Bill, especially measures to provide an Independent Advocate for victims following major incidents, and to enhance victims’ access to justice by putting the Victims’ Code on a statutory footing. However, proposed changes within this Bill to the Parole Board are likely to add complexity and delay to its decisions, while provisions to give the Secretary of State powers to usurp its decision-making will override the common law principle that decisions about liberty are for the judiciary.

Those Bills of relevance to the Law Society and our members that fall outside the realm of crime and justice include the Leasehold and Freehold Bill and the Renters (Reform) Bill. On the former, the Law Society broadly supports efforts to reform leasehold conditions and ensure fairness in the housing market. Primary concerns surround the conditions under which a leasehold can occur, redress for leaseholders and transparency in listing. For the latter, again, the Law Society broadly supports the ambitions of the Bill to reform the rental market, however, without investment in housing legal aid and the courts, the Bill will not achieve its aims and may lead to an increase in backlogs. This would leave landlords and tenants alike unable to enforce their legal rights.

Party Conferences

The Law Society has a full programme at each major party conference. Our presence at the party conferences provides the opportunity to meet, engage, build new working relationships, and reinforce those longstanding relationships with politicians from each party.

At the Liberal Democrat Party conference our focus was on meeting MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) to hear their priorities for the upcoming manifesto and general election. We held a fringe event focused on ‘Law and liberalism: finding Britain’s place in the world’ where Richard Atkinson, our then deputy vice president, was joined by the Liberal Democrat Justice spokesperson Lord Marks KC and former MEP Irina Von Wiese. Interesting conversations were had with MPs and PPCs on the need for the justice sector to prioritise asks around civil and criminal legal aid.

We then attended the Conservative Party’s conference, at which the centrepiece of our programme was our fringe event held in collaboration with the Society of Conservative Lawyers and the Bar Council which featured the Lord Chancellor, Alex Chalk, the Chair of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Bob Neill, and our immediate past president, Lubna Shuja. Lubna spoke out against the attacks on lawyers from ministers, including the prime minister himself, and said that all lawyers should be able to represent their client without undue pressure from the state. She also spoke about the need for sustainable legal aid, and how the problem of legal aid deserts is starker than ever.

Lastly, we attended the Labour conference and hosted a busy programme of stakeholder events and meetings with Labour shadow ministers and stakeholders. Our main fringe saw our then vice president, now president, Nick Emmerson speak at a packed panel event discussing Labour’s vision for justice alongside the Shadow Lord Chancellor, Shabana Mahmood and Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry. Emmerson outlined the need for investment in civil and criminal legal aid while calling on the sector, politicians, and individuals to engage with our recent paper putting forward proposals to reform civil justice. We also organised a roundtable that brought together members with the Shadow Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Tulip Siddiq MP. This focused on the vital role law firms play in the UK economy, how our leading role as a global legal centre can be maintained and what Labour’s vision for professional services looks like.

Autumn Statement

The Autumn Statement is due on 22 November which is one of the final opportunities for the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s to set out the government’s fiscal plans prior to the next General Election. The Law Society have submitted representations which have laid out the value and power of legal services and the need for the government to invest in the legal profession to unleash the power of legal services to boost the UK economy.

Legal Services are worth £60 billion annually to the UK economy, with a strong legal services sector underpinning a strong economy across the board. The package of reforms we are calling for are designed to build on the existing economic strengths of our profession while unleashing the latent productivity and economic potential of the sizeable SME segment of the legal services sector, all at minimal cost to the government. By implementing the changes and policies outlined in our submission, legal services, from the high street legal practice to the global law firm, can rapidly be unleashed to help drive innovation and widespread economic growth across all our communities.

Immigration – Illegal Migration Act

In the summer the Illegal Migration Act received royal assent and is now law. Throughout its parliamentary journey, we have spoken out against the bill’s unworkability, and its incompatibility with our international obligations. Through our campaigning we managed to achieve the inclusion of legal aid provisions that ensure the provision of civil legal aid services for those in receipt of a removal notice. The bill originally made no mention of legal aid. Following our campaigning on legal aid, the Government will open a consultation into immigration legal aid fees.

On 15 November, the Supreme Court ruled the government’s policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful, backing the Court of Appeal’s judgment. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said he will introduce emergency legislation on the Rwanda asylum plan. We shall be monitoring the situation as it develops and will, where needed, speak in support of our members in the immigration asylum sector should they face undue criticism for the work they do on behalf of their clients.

Criminal Legal Aid

The Law Society applied for permission to bring a judicial review challenge against the government over criminal legal aid funding following their decision not to increase criminal defence solicitors’ legal aid rates by the recommended minimum 15%. We believe the government’s decision not to implement the key recommendations of the Bellamy review is irrational, lacking reasons, and is in breach of the constitutional right of access to justice. The High Court has granted permission on all three grounds. Hearing dates have been set for mid-December 2023 and a judgement is likely to occur in the early New Year. It is our hope that the decision will be ruled unlawful and force the Ministry of Justice to revisit their decision and uplift fees in a more sustainable and appropriate manner.

We have continued to campaign on the sustainability of the criminal justice system, providing evidence on the decline of criminal duty solicitors and projections that show the widescale collapse of duty solicitor schemes across England and Wales is ever more likely.

21st Century Justice Project

In March 2023, we kicked off a three-year project to look at the problems facing justice in England and Wales and explore practical changes to make sure the system works effectively, now and in the future. We’ve engaged with experts in the field, members of the public, small business representatives and consumer groups to think about what they want and need from our justice system. We have now developed fresh ideas for practical, affordable changes to our civil justice system that could save the system £72million over a five-year period.

On 9 October, we published the 21st Century Justice Project Green Paper, 'Proposals for a 21st Century Justice system' and are seeking wider feedback on the questions raised within the paper to assist us to refine our proposals in advance of producing a White Paper in Spring 2024. Responses to those questions of most relevance to you can be submitted to by Friday 5 January 2024.