Your weekly Law Society update
As the professional body for solicitors, every week the Law Society is working hard to influence the legal and regulatory environment on behalf of our profession and to promote solicitors at home and abroad. We support practice excellence, are an informed source of legal sector news and support members at every stage of their career.
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Probate service review
We hosted another helpful probate professional user group meeting with HMCTS. They reiterated that the service is not experiencing delays.
HMCTS’s probate service has brought in extra staff to prepare for an increase in workload and any delay to processing times for grants of probate will therefore only be for a short period.
Uptake in the digital service has been increasing week on week since May and we continue to encourage members to register for this. More information can be found here.
We will be meeting again at the beginning of September.
Criminal courts listings issues
We have written to the CEO of HMCTS to request confirmation that urgent action is being taken with regard to reports we have received that in certain magistrates’ courts large numbers of cases are being listed at one time (in one instance over 100 for one court in one morning). We expressed serious concerns about the potential risk to health of court users due to overcrowding in waiting areas. In addition, in many of these cases the solicitor has been required to attend, only to find that the case has been adjourned.
We have responded to the attorney general’s consultation on revisions to guidelines on disclosure in criminal cases, and the associated Code of Practice. We supported the proposal to create a rebuttable presumption that certain items of commonly generated evidence should usually be disclosed, that disclosure should be undertaken as early in the proceedings as possible and, in appropriate situations, to permit defence engagement with the investigation to identify potential lines of enquiry.
We wrote to the director of visas and citizenship at the Home Office regarding the Covid-19 visa extension policy for people whose leave to remain in the UK expired during the pandemic. During a committee hearing, the second permanent secretary announced that the policy would end on 31 July 2020 and not be renewed, as it was previously. This has not been announced elsewhere to date and follows other instances of similar announcements, such as the visa extension for NHS workers, which has not been put on a legal footing under the Immigration Rules.
APPG on legal and constitutional affairs meeting
On 21st July I appeared before the APPG with Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar, to address the question: "Should the coronavirus be allowed to change the way in which we do justice in this country". The link is here Watch the recording I appear about 14 minutes in.
The Law Society was referenced twice during an oral evidence session of the Lords' constitution committee at which the lord chancellor, Robert Buckland, and Susan Acland-Hood, HMCTS chief executive, gave evidence. Lord Sherbourne cited the Law Society’s concerns about the impact of virtual proceedings on access to justice, and the lord chancellor mentioned the Law Society among those organisations he has been engaging regularly with throughout the pandemic.
The Law Society was mentioned by Bob Neill MP, chair of the Justice Select Committee, during a parliamentary debate on the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill. Neill referenced the Law Society’s briefing and our concerns regarding increasing the use of polygraph testing in the justice system.
Diversity and Inclusion
Will the new normal be a disability inclusive working environment?
In partnership with Legally Disabled, we have launched a survey to gather experiences of disabled people in the profession both during lockdown and post-lockdown.
We will use these insights to inform best practice for the future and to evidence aspects of remote working that could benefit disabled people working within the legal sector long term.
The survey is open until Sunday 2 August and should take only 20-25 minutes to complete.
Take the survey
We have been in the media this week to promote the role and value of the profession in difficult times
The Times (£) reported that leaders of the solicitors’ profession have called on ministers to double the time limit for bringing employment tribunal claims.
The Law Society has argued that since a 2017 Supreme Court ruling, which found the government’s fee scheme was unlawful, claims have increased significantly, but without a commensurate boost to resources at the tribunal.
I said: “We strongly support the idea of raising the time limit for bringing all employment tribunal claims to within six months.”
Also covered in Personnel Today.
The New Law Journal reported that 10 temporary ‘Nightingale’ courts will soon be starting in August. They will hear civil, family and tribunals work and non-custodial crime cases to make space in existing courts for jury trials and more serious criminal cases.
The Solicitors Journal also noted lord chancellor Robert Buckland has announced the locations of the 10 Nightingale Courts set up to tackle the backlog of cases due to Covid-19.
The Law Society welcomed the announcement. I warned the crisis existed prior to the pandemic.
“After years of underfunding and cuts, there were already significant backlogs across the civil and criminal justice systems,” he said. “This has been exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic – with the number of outstanding cases standing at over 524,000 late last month.”
New Law Journal cited my call that closed but unsold courts and other unused public buildings be used:
“We believe the government can build court capacity to clear the backlog by using unused public buildings – including court buildings which have been closed but have remained unsold – as Nightingale courts.”
The Gazette, Law360 (£), Legal Futures and Inside Conveyancing reported on the government’s economic crime levy consultation, launched earlier this week.
The consultation was announced as part of the 2020 Budget and a government move to introduce an economic crime levy.
I said: “Solicitors play an important role in the battle against money laundering and the Law Society – as the named supervisory body – shares the government’s objectives in having a robust regime in place.
“Our sector devotes substantial resources to fighting financial crime. We have strong concerns that a further unjustified burden will fall on a sector already under strain.
“We will be robustly engaging in the consultation process to ensure the profession’s views are well represented.”
Legal Futures noted that lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC has dropped his plan to replace juries in some criminal trials with a judge and two magistrates.
The Law Society and the Bar Council have condemned reducing the role of trial by jury.
The Independent, Yahoo! News and the Gazette cited a report by the Law Centres Network which has found a large proportion of the public will be left without “vital” assistance to protect their job, home or benefits during the crisis without ending up in poverty because they fall into the “justice gap”.
Richard Miller, the Law Society’s head of justice, said he supported the reports findings, adding: “If people cannot enforce their rights, then effectively these rights do not exist.
“The scale of legal need is too vast for law centres to bear alone. It will also be vital to ensure that private practice and legal aid firms working in these areas are fully supported to continue providing these much-needed services.”
Justice minister Alex Chalk told the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid that the government is looking to publish its findings along with a consultation on policy options in spring 2021, the Gazette reports.
Alongside consulting on threshold changes to the legal aid means test, the department will also look at the sustainability on the civil legal aid system.
Richard Miller warned of a “sectoral collapse” if the ministry did not address the three problems currently facing practitioners: cashflow implications of Covid-19, loss of income and the underlying crisis of sustainability.
Legal Futures features a piece mentioning legal aid and quotes Richard Miller, saying it was vital that legal aid rates were increased by at least the rate of inflation immediately, even while discussions were ongoing about what to do about legal aid generally.
Legal Futures reported an online session of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Constitutional Affairs, which saw me explain that the end of the coronavirus pandemic will bring a “massive increase” in demand for legal services.
The coronavirus lockdown in March has made it harder for Personal Representatives to administer estates within a reasonable period of time, the Gazette reports, in an article
by Ian Bond and Kieran Bowe on the market re-opening and sales proceeding. Ian Bond is chair of the Law Society’s wills and equity committee and head of trusts and estates at Talbots Law and Kieran Bowe is a wills and equity committee member and partner at Russell Cooke.
Today’s Wills & Probate noted the anticipation in the legal profession, as it awaits the Ministry of Justice’s announcement legalising wills that have been witnessed via video calls.
Ian Bond said: “The Law Commission had been put in place to look at wills in 2017 and was trundling along but unfortunately Covid-19 came round before it could make any changes to primary legislation.”
Yahoo! Finance cited a Telegraph (£) article which quotes Ian Bond saying “the Law Commission had been put in place to look at wills in 2017 and was trundling along but unfortunately Covid-19 came round before it could make any changes to primary legislation”.
He also spoke to Today’s Wills & Probate about the annotated probate forms which have recently been released by the Law Society and HM Courts & Tribunals Service.
“The Law Society welcomes the publication of the registrars annotated forms which arose from helpful discussions between the Registrars and the Law Society, STEP and SFE. The annotated forms alongside the FAQs are a real help to the solicitor profession in making paper applications for grants of representation,” he said.
New Law Journal reported that the Law Commission has proposed reforms to home ownership, making it simpler for leaseholders to extend their lease, take over the management or buy the freehold.
Under the proposals, there would be a new right to extend a lease for 990 years, in place of 50 or 90-year extensions and landlords would not be allowed to insist leaseholders accept new obligations or play extension costs.
I said the recommendations would “deliver real benefit for homeowners” and “provide the flexibility for commonhold to develop as an alternative to leasehold, if incentivised further by government”.
The Times (£) reported on how coronavirus affected the future of our criminal justice system. Ian Kelcey, the co-chair of our criminal law committee said: “The jury system is a unique system whereby each member of a jury brings…their unique experience. You immediately lose that if you do away with jury trials.”
The Gazette meanwhile reflected on how Covid-19 has affected the criminal justice system ahead of the MoJ’s annual report. Law Society president Simon Davis said: “I do not believe the MoJ has realised the extent of the problem Covid-19 is producing and the way the criminal defence profession may well collapse in a hideously unstructured way.”
The Global Legal Post reports on the government’s announcement that businesses can begin returning to the office from August. I said: “For as long as Covid-19 remains a virus that is easily spread within our population, while also causing significant medical problems to a large group of people, working practices will need to be flexible.”
Family Law Week reported our submission to the Joint Human Rights Committee on the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act.
Kent Live, Yorkshire Live, North Wales Live, Get Reading, Macclesfield Express and 32 others reported that lie detector tests should not be allowed to creep further into the criminal justice system.
The Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill would introduce mandatory polygraph tests for serious terrorist offenders, a measure already in use in connection with sex offenders released on licence.
Bob Neill, chair of the Justice Select Committee, said in the Commons: “The Law Society make the point that the suggestion of the use of polygraphs in some of these circumstances is more to persuade people, almost psychologically is the phrase they use in their briefing, against breaching the orders.”
Liz Fisher-Frank, a member of the Law Society’s family law committee, writes in the Gazette about a potential explosion in family law cases.
“Now is a good time to make a call for pro-bono volunteers so that all those who have advice needs can access that advice,” she said.
Change of leaderships in communications directorate
After six years at the Law Society Mike Browne (operational director of Brand & Communications) has decided it is time for him to move on. We would like to thank Mike for his passion and commitment to the organisation. He worked hard to modernise our brand, promote the profession, present our member offer, ramp up broadcast and national media profile, create a member focused website and keep staff engaged in our future direction. He played a positive and active part in the senior leadership and direction of the organisation and he will be missed by colleagues.
Update from our Brussels office
Helena Raulus, head of office attended the BBUKOO (Brussels based UK Organisations and Offices) meeting with the UKMIS on Friday. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the state of the EU-UK negotiations.
As always, please feel free to share this update with your constituents.
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