Bills, bills, bills: a Queen’s speech of huge legal complexity
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Administrator
This parliament’s two-year legislative programme is very different from those seen in recent history.
With no majority (except by dint of the Democratic Unionist Party deal), the government is planning to steer through a legislative programme of huge complexity dealing with the combined fallout from Brexit, legacy legislation from the last parliament, which was cut short, and the surprise election result that has forced Conservative politicians to rethink some of their policies and respond also to growing clamours to improve services and ease austerity. The former Lib Dem peer Andrew Phillips, who founded LAG, LawWorks (as the Solicitors Pro Bono Group) and the Citizenship Foundation, is known for his colourful attacks on the executive and parliament for legislative hyperactivity; he will have plenty to speak about on any lecture circuit over the next couple of years. And in any hung parliament scenario, the chambers can become a site of rebellions, horse-trading between parties, pingponging, filibusters, late sittings, guillotines and a politics in which obscure party whips broker major changes to public policy legislation to the frustration of civil servants and parliamentary draftsmen.
So what’s on the agenda? Predictably, there’s Brexit; no longer a single ‘Great Repeal Bill’, but a Repeal Bill together with an Immigration Bill, a Customs Bill, a Trade Bill, a Travel Protection Bill and others on fisheries, agriculture, nuclear power, international sanctions, as well as further technical bills. In the legal services sector, many issues around cross-border jurisdictional process, practice rights, enforcement issues and dispute resolution mechanisms remain up in the air. The post-Brexit package of rights, from citizenship to employment and social protection, is also unclear and whatever the outcome from negotiations, legislating it will be a challenging task. According to Legislating for Brexit: EU directives (House of Commons Library Briefing Paper no 7943, 5 April 2017), there are 19,000 EU laws in UK statute that need dealing with. Magic Circle firm Linklaters has co-authored a report with the International Regulatory Strategy Group (‘The Great Repeal Bill’: domesticating EU law, June 2017) on the mammoth undertaking of bringing more than 12,000 EU regulations and 7,900 statutory instruments into domestic law. So, far from being the bonfire of regulation that some hoped for, it looks to be more like a tsunami. A good sector-by-sector guide to Brexit is provided by DLA Piper.
Putting aside Brexit, there will be other significant legislative developments for the justice sector. The Courts Bill will facilitate the modernisation and digitisation programme for online courts and pleadings, a Civil Liability Bill will reduce whiplash insurance compensation tariffs, claims and settlements, while a Financial Guidance and Claims Bill will reform claims management regulation and money advice. A welcome addition to the legislative programme for housing campaigners is the inclusion of bills to regulate letting agency fees and mortgage products (especially lending products linked with bills of sale and logbook loans). In light of the Grenfell Tower fire, it is probable that more housing and tenancy legislation will be forthcoming. There will also be a draft Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, establishing a domestic violence and abuse commissioner and a consolidated new domestic abuse civil prevention and protection order regime, with tougher sentencing for abusive behaviour involving children. While not included in the Queen’s speech, within Conservative policy circles there also seems to be support for a Family Law Reform Bill, perhaps including a no-fault divorce option. Finally, the Review of Employment Practices in the Modern Economy headed by Matthew Taylor may lead to changes under the National Insurance Contributions Bill; however, it seems unlikely that the precariat of freelancers in the ‘gig economy’ will get any new rights.
In such an uncertain context, it may be events rather than legislative timetables that determine the course of this parliament.
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What about access to justice and the advice sector, though: will any easing of austerity extend to justice, especially when the government also has to cope with a funding crisis for the NHS and the future of the social care system, about which there will be a green paper? Starting with what we know, the government is already committed to carrying out a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, although the timetable for this will now shift by some months. The intention was that this review should lead to a new green paper next year on the topic of legal support. This still remains the best hope for achieving any significant change or improvement on existing minimal provision; a wider concept of legal support offers opportunities not just for improving and boosting legal aid funding in a changing justice system, but also for improving and co-ordinating how legal aid providers and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service can work and co-ordinate with other support, voluntary sector and pro bono services, as well as improving public legal education resources. With civil legal aid data showing continuous decline, this review cannot come quickly enough.
Of course, in such an uncertain context, it may be events rather than legislative timetables that determine the course of this parliament as much as the last one. Many promised initiatives from the last parliament, from a life chances strategy to green papers on social justice, the ‘Improving Lives’ agenda for integrating social support and employment services, and the promised £140m housing estate turnaround fund, never materialised, so whether a more active social policy with a focus on accessing rights can emerge from this parliament remains to be seen.

About the author(s)

Description: James Sandbach - author
James Sandbach was director of policy and external affairs at LawWorks from 2017 to 2021.