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Westminster weekly update: lord chancellor grilled on legal aid by MPs

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The extension of a Swiss-UK professional services travel agreement is good news for lawyers and law firms doing business between the two countries.

Lawyers and other service providers from the UK can continue to travel to Switzerland for up to 90 days a year without a short-stay permit. The two countries agreed to extend their Services Mobility Agreement (SMA) until the end of 2025.

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What you need to know

1. Lord Chancellor grilled on legal aid by MPs

On Tuesday November 22, the lord chancellor, Dominic Raab, appeared before the Justice Select Committee and was questioned on:

  • criminal legal aid
  • the proposed Bill of Rights
  • the Ministry of Justice’s budget

MPs pushed Raab on evidence we gave last week in the country many criminal legal aid firms are in and asked why he had not implemented the 15% increase recommended by the Bellamy Review.

The lord chancellor argued that most fees had been increased by 15% and the full consultation response would come at the end of this month.

Labor MP Karl Turner highlighted that there are under 1,000 firms left, and asked what the contingency plan was if these firms collapsed.

Raab felt there were enough practitioners in the market to do the work and the government’s investment would support them.

The lord chancellor was also pushed by MPs on when he would meet with us.

Raab confirmed a meeting would be arranged soon. We look forward to meeting in the coming days.

The session also touched on the proposed Bill of Rights.

The lord chancellor confirmed it would return to Parliament “soon”, with a few changes made from the original bill published earlier this year.

In his view, the bill would help protect free speech and prevent abuse of the system by foreign national offenders.

However, he expects “interesting conversations” once the bill reaches the House of Lords, where peers are likely to attempt to amend the legislation.

We are extremely concerned the bill could harm the UK’s economic competitiveness.

The lord chancellor outlined his priorities for the department:

  • passing the Bill of Rights
  • a victim’s bill
  • wider work on prisons and addressing violence against women and girls

Raab acknowledged cost pressures on the Ministry of Justice and said he wanted to safeguard spending on his priority areas, while finding savings to manage increasing costs.

We have warned the Ministry of Justice is facing a real terms cut in spending due to inflation and this will put further pressure on legal aid and the courts system.

2. Justice ministers questioned in Parliament

Justice questions took place in Parliament on Tuesday November 22.

MPs raised criminal legal aid, human rights and the courts backlog.

Labor MP Karl Turner said that criminal defense solicitors are on their knees. He asked the lord chancellor to work with us and other groups to come to an agreement on parity of funding.

Legal Aid Minister, Mike Freer, said the lord chancellor is engaging with all stakeholders across the justice system on this issue.

Shadow legal aid minister, Afzal Khan, also raised criminal legal aid, noting that we had warned it may have to advise its members to stop working in criminal practice.

Khan called for the lord chancellor to honor his own review and give firms the funding they needed.

Freer revised that the government is focused on giving the system the funding it needs within the current spending envelope.

The proposed Bill of Rights was also raised.

SNP MP Gavin Newlands quoted a number of former ministers who had criticized the bill. He asked why the lord chancellor’s colleague felt the bill was unnecessary.

The lord chancellor, Dominic Raab, said that there were differences of opinion on the bill, but it will have overwhelming support in Parliament.

Stuart C. McDonald (SNP) asked why the lord chancellor wanted to create “a second-tier system of rights protection” through the legislation.

Raab revised that the bill will deal with the “elastic interpretation of rights and shifting goalposts that have undermined the credibility of human rights”.

Turning to the courts backlog, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Dame Meg Hillier, noted that the courts backlog is not going down and that it is not all due to Covid-19.

She asked what the lord chancellor was doing about this. Raab respondents that the backlog was due to the Criminal Bar Association’s recent strike action and criticized Labor for taking the side of disruptive action.

3. Home Secretary scrutiny by committee

this week, the Home Affairs Committee questioned the recently re-appointed Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, in a wide-ranging session examining the work of the Home Office.

The session focused on a range of issues related to the asylum and immigration system, including the government’s strategies to cut the processing backlog and ensure adequate accommodation for those claiming asylum in the UK.

MPs also scrutinized the government’s attempts to reduce the numbers of people attempting to cross the Channel in small boats, and in particular the recently signed agreement with France and the future of the migration deal with Rwanda.

During the session, the home secretary said that she did not want to “point the finger” within the UK’s immigration system for the migrant crisis. She said it was the fault of “people smugglers” and those taking illegal routes to the UK for economic reasons.

Conservative MP Lee Anderson contended that “dodgy immigration lawyers” are making millions of pounds and that lawyers will never admit that spurious claims are being made.

A clip from the session has gone viral on social media after Conservative MP, Tim Loughton, asked the home secretary how an orphan from an African country with family in the UK could enter the country legally in order to make an asylum claim.

The home secretary was unable to provide an answer.

4. Retained EU Law Bill continues committee stage

The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill has continued its committee stage in the House of Commons this week.

MPs debated:

  • amendments on the sunset clause
  • carve outs for the devolved administrations
  • Exemptions for workers, environment, and consumer rights

All the amendments on these issues were defeated, with the government members of the committee voting against them.

Government members repeatedly asserted that the bill is necessary to complete the UK’s transition away from the EU and the sunset clause is needed to ensure that the process of reviewing retained EU laws does not drag on.

Opposition members, with support from us and other key stakeholders, argued that the deadline is arbitrary and could result in some laws being sunk without anyone realizing. This would mean citizens and businesses losing access to long-established rights.

We have been briefing MPs on the consequences of the bill.

We are supporting amendments to extend the sunset clause to 2026 and for the inclusion of a ‘Definitive List’ of legislation that will be impacted by the ill to ensure sufficient clarity and scrutiny, as well as mitigating against laws falling away due to the cliff edge Deadline December 31, 2023.

The bill will continue its committee stage next week.

coming up

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

Debate on the government’s recent Autumn Statement will continue in the House of Lords next week.

Bill of Rights: The bill will return to the Commons for its second reading, the date to be announced.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill: The bill will continue its committee stage in the Commons.

Retained EU Law Bill: The bill will continue its committee stage in the Commons.

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