Westminster Watch

In his first column for Counsel, Mark Hatcher examines the newly opened Parliamentary session and the business ahead.

As the beginning of the holiday season approaches, MPs face another few weeks at Westminster before the House of Commons rises for the summer recess on 22 July. The Parliamentary session, which opened with The Queen’s Speech on 4 June, will have been running for just seven weeks before the Commons pack up for the summer. Allowing for a two-week interval of business before the party conferences begin in September, MPs can look forward to a 10-week break.

Her Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech to both Houses of Parliament (as it is formally known) marked the beginning of the end of the current Parliament. With the Dissolution less than a year away and a General Election in May 2015, the legislative programme is light. It contains the lowest number of Bills since the final year of Gordon Brown’s administration in 2009. The focus of the Coalition Government’s programme, in the words of No 10’s Press Statement, is “pro-work, pro-business and pro-aspiration”. The backdrop is one where the economy has become one of the fastest-growing in the developed world, with more people in work, while the Government continues to maintain tight control over public expenditure and remains committed to further deficit reduction.

The legislative business for the remainder of this session is focused on 11 full Bills, three draft Bills and six “carry-over” Bills – these are measures carried over from the previous session, with the approval of the House of Commons. The Criminal Justice and Courts Bill is one of these carry-over Bills. It was introduced by the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, in the previous session and completed its progress through the Commons last month. The Bill makes wide-ranging reforms to the justice system (including raising the upper age limit for jurors from 70 to 75) as well as changes to sentencing and the criminal law. But this Bill has attracted considerable opposition for the changes it seeks to make to the conduct and funding of judicial review (JR) proceedings.

Opposition to the Bill can be expected to continue as it begins line by line scrutiny in the Lords. A number of Peers, on all sides of the House, are deeply concerned about the proposed changes to JR. These could have a chilling effect on holding the Executive to account at law. The Bill includes a proposed new test that would require the court to refuse permission or a remedy where the alleged failure was highly unlikely to have affected the decision in issue. It proposes new rules to ensure that interveners and third party funders can be made liable for costs in certain circumstances, and introduces limitations on the availability of orders which would limit claimants’ cost liability. A foretaste of the strength of opposition from the House of Lords on changes to JR came during the debate initiated by crossbench Peer, Lord Pannick QC, in his motion against the Legal Aid (Remuneration) (Amendment) (No 3) Regulations in May. The Bar Council will continue to make representations to Parliamentarians against the changes to JR which seek to reduce the discretion of the judiciary on the basis of a very weak evidence base.

Among other Bills at Westminster which will be of interest to the Bar are the Serious Crime Bill and the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill. The former, introduced to the Lords by the Home Office, seeks amongst other matters to strengthen the arrangements for the recovery of criminal assets by amending the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and extends the scope of Serious Crime Prevention Orders. The Bill also provides for people suspected of an offence overseas under section 5 (acts preparatory to terrorism) or section 6 (training for terrorism) of the Terrorism Act 2006 to be prosecuted in the UK.

The Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill (dubbed “Sarah’s Bill”) is another being promoted by Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling. The “have-a-go heroes Bill” is intended to provide a legal defence to people who are sued after intervening in emergencies or acting to protect the safety of others. Courts will have to consider the wider context of defendants’ actions in such circumstances and take into account “heroic action”. Critics see the Bill as the last dying gasp of the Big Society.

Over the coming months Westminster Watch will continue to follow developments among the Parliamentary Select Committees which are likely to be of interest to the Bar, in particular the work of the Commons Justice Committee.This committee is in its final year under the chairmanship of Sir Alan Beith MP, the Lib Dem member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who announced last year that, after more than 40 years’ service in the Commons, he will not be standing at the next election. A recent change in the composition of the committee to note concerns Robert Buckland, the Conservative Member for Swindon South, who practised at the Bar and who has recently resumed his membership of this committee.

The Justice Committee is currently inquiring into the impact of changes to civil legal aid under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012. The Bar Council has submitted evidence to the committee, drawing on the results of the research it has undertaken into the impact of LASPO on civil legal aid and those who practise in this area. The headline messages of the research are being published at the Bar Council’s 2014 Remuneration Conference on 12 July. The full report is expected to be published in time for the party conference season in September.

Among the Lords Select Committees, the Constitution Committee’s interest in developments in the administration of justice, and risks to the quality of the justice system if reforms to it are driven by a need to save money rather than to address identifiable problems, is expected to continue following the evidence given to the committee by the Lord Chief Justice at the end of the last Parliamentary session.

As the final session of the current Parliament continues after the summer recess the focus of MPs’ activity will increasingly be on election planning, the preparation of manifestos and campaigning. Some Members will not be returning to Westminster either of their own choice or as a result of a decision of the electorate. The new intake in 2015 May will face what the Commons Administration Committee described last year as “a daunting experience and a tough test for many” in their report, First Weeks at Westminster: induction arrangements for new MPs in 2015 (HC 193).

For some of them, as well as those who observe the proceedings at Westminster from outside, it will be an alien working environment which is disorientating and sometimes difficult to understand.

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