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Westminster weekly update: Withdrawal Agreement secures Royal Assent

Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.

One thing you need to do

Read our new report which outlines the contribution of the legal services sector to the UK economy.

The report finds that in 2018, legal services were worth nearly £60bn gross value added to the UK economy, while in 2017 the sector’s exports hit £5bn. Legal services support around 552,000 full time employees.

Five things you need to know

1. Withdrawal Agreement Bill receives Royal Assent

Last week the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill passed report stage and third reading in the Lords, returning to the Commons with five amendments. These were quashed by vote in the Commons, and on the Bill’s return to the Lords on Wednesday night (22 January) the Bill was passed unamended. It has since received Royal Assent, meaning it has passed onto the statute book and the UK will leave the European Union and will enter the negotiated transition period at 11pm 31 January. We have briefed throughout on relevant issues.

The Lords made five amendments to the Bill, one of which related to the EU Settlement Scheme and citizens’ rights, two to Clause 26 (giving ministers powers to allow lower courts to disapply European Court of Justice judgments), one to unaccompanied refugee children, and one to the devolved legislatures. Before the resultant debate in the Commons, No.10 briefed the press that they would not accept any amendments, and as such each amendment was voted down.

Opposition spokespeople in the Lords – particularly Labour Lords deputy leader Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town and Liberal Democrat Europe spokesperson Baroness Ludford – expressed their regret that the government chose to overturn the amendments. Ludford argued that the Lords had “improved the Bill in two major areas: first, respect for people—the rights of EU citizens and child refugees—and, secondly, respect for the law and the constitution regarding the courts, judicial independence and the devolution settlement.” That said, the House agreed not to return the Bill again to the Commons, allowing it to pass and await Royal Assent, which it received on Thursday.

The Withdrawal Agreement must still be approved by a vote in the European Parliament, which will take place on Wednesday 29 January and is expected to pass. The UK will then leave the European Union and enter the implementation period at 11pm on Friday 31 January.

Read a full copy of the Withdrawal Agreement Act

2. Legal services raised in Queen’s Speech debate on the economy

Last Monday saw continued debate in the House of Commons on the Queen’s Speech, with the debate centering on ‘economy and jobs’.

Previous chair of the Justice Select Committee Sir Bob Neill MP (Conservative) referred to our calls for the government to accede to the Lugano Convention and the Hague Convention in order to ensure mutual recognition and enforcement of judgments after Brexit. Other topics raised included the impact of Brexit on the professional services sector, access to justice and financial regulation.

Opening for the government, chancellor Sajid Javid MP said that the UK is “an open and competitive economy with some of the most innovative and exciting businesses in the world,” and noted that new figures showed that tech investment in the UK grew faster last year than in the US, China, France and Germany. He stressed that the government was aware that indecision around Brexit has affected the UK’s economy. The chancellor reiterated that the UK is leaving the EU, the single market and the customs union, and is seeking a ambitious free trade agreements both with EU and non-EU states.

Responding, Sir Bob Neill MP said that legal services are part of “a greater hub of professional services in which the UK excels,” and it is therefore crucial that we find a means of ensuring mutual recognition of legal qualifications so that British lawyers can continue to provide fly-in, fly-out services in Europe, and a means of ensuring mutual recognition and enforcement of judgments.

Neill referred to the Law Society, saying: “At the end of the day, a contract is only as valuable as its ability to be enforced meaningfully. That is why the Law Society and the Bar Council are right to urge the government to move swiftly to sign us up to the Lugano convention and to move, in our own right, into the Hague Convention.” He said that while this would not be as good as the Brussels I arrangements, they would provide a means of building goodwill, and that mutual recognition was equally important for big business as for protecting small and medium-sized enterprises, consumers and individuals.

He also argued that people choose to bring their legal business to the UK because they trust us “as a clean, efficient and impartial jurisdiction.” He said that our judiciary is “benchmark that the world…aspires to,” and that while it was legitimate to consider future constitutional arrangements, whatever happens, “we must make sure that there is no suggestion of any diminution of either the quality or the independence of the British judiciary.”

Read a full transcript of the debate

3. Law Society launches next phase of its legal aid deserts campaign

Last Tuesday, we launched an interactive map as part of the next phase of its legal aid deserts campaign, showing the catastrophic extent of these deserts across the country.

The new community care heat map highlights that cared-for people fighting to get vital welfare services or remain in their own home are being denied support by a shortage of community care legal aid provision.

Through analysis of data from the Legal Aid Agency directory of providers (September 2019) and the Office of National Statistics (2017) we found that in England and Wales:

  • more than 37 million people in England and Wales live in a local authority area without a single community care legal aid provider, including over 7.5 million people aged 65 and over
  • 78% of local authorities in England and Wales do not have a single community care legal aid provider

The situation is even worse than the map suggests because many of these community care legal aid lawyers provide advice in a subset of cases known as Court of Protection work, in which the client may be deprived of their liberty because they can no longer make decisions for themselves.

The fees government pays for civil legal aid provision have not increased since 1994, equating to a 49% real-terms reduction. Fees were cut by a further 10% in 2011, compounding this issue.

The report has been covered by the Daily Mail and ITV news, as well as 93 local news outlets around the country.

See the community care heat map

4. MPs consider Commission on Justice in Wales

Last Wednesday Liz Saville Roberts MP (Plaid Cyrmu) led a Westminster Hall debate on the report of the Commission on Justice in Wales. Her remarks to the MPs present were focused on the report’s recommendations on criminal justice, family justice and legal aid.

On criminal justice, Saville Roberts argued that effective intervention and treatment of victims in Wales is hampered by the lack of devolution of justice policy. She asked the government to respond to the report’s recommendation that a Wales Criminal Justice Board with executive authority to set overall criminal justice strategy for Wales be created. Family justice would also benefit from a more integrated approach between Welsh justice policy and other devolved competencies such as education, health and social policy, Saville Roberts continued.

With regard to legal aid, she argued that deep cuts had hit Wales hard, with only three publicly funded providers of benefits advice (out of 31) remaining in Wales before the cuts were implemented. She also noted that the number of firms providing legal aid has fallen by 29% in Wales, compared with 20% in England. She finished by claiming that the present system was not working, and that a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction should be created.

Yasmin Qureshi MP (Shadow Justice Minister) stated that gaps in provision of family justice were unacceptable, particularly given the bilingual nature of Welsh justice. She said it was clear the current approach was not working, and it was up to the UK Government to work with the Welsh Government in exploring the recommendations from the report.

Chris Philp MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Justice) said that as the report had been commissioned by the Welsh Government it was not the UK Government’s intention to issue a formal response, but they would explore issues on a case by case basis with the Welsh Government. He noted that the cost of splitting the English and Welsh jurisdiction would be around £100 million per year, and argued that devolution is no panacea.

Read the full debate

5. Select Committee Chairs and shadow justice minister

Last Wednesday, Labour MP Bambos Charalambous, a solicitor, was appointed to become a shadow justice minister, and will lead on the areas of victims and legal aid for the party. Prior to taking on the role, Charalambous served as a member of the Justice Select Committee and was vocal on access to justice issues.

The nomination process for Select Committee chairs continues, and will close on Monday 27 January at 4pm. Contested elections will take place by secret ballot on Wednesday 29 January, and will close at 4pm. At present, there is only one candidate for Justice Committee chair, which is the incumbent Sir Bob Neill MP (Conservative).

In the Labour leadership contest, Jess Philips MP announced last Tuesday that she would be withdrawing from the race. Four candidates now remain – Rebecca Long-Bailey MP, Lisa Nandy MP, Emily Thornberry MP and Sir Keir Starmer MP.

Read the list of those currently validly nominated for Select Committee Chair positions (PDF)

Coming up this week

This week in the House of Commons, Wednesday will see an opposition day debate on home affairs, before a general debate on ‘global Britain’ on Thursday.

In the House of Lords, Wednesday will also see oral questions on the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission.

The secret ballot to appoint Select Committee chairs will take place on Wednesday at 4pm.

View the upcoming parliamentary business

If you made it this far

We’ve produced guidance explaining how the transition period in the UK-EU relationship, beginning 1 February, will affect various areas of law.

Read more about the transition period


Credit: lawsociety