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.
Keeping business afloat
We are preparing for the government's announcement next week of initial plans for the phased release of lockdown. We have already sought input from large and small firms and used this to shape our contribution when the government shared proposals with us for comment prior to publication.
Hot of the press - We know that the signing of documents has been a key concern of members and we have raised this at every opportunity. In response, we have just received confirmation that mercury signatures will be accepted by the Land Registry from todday. You can read more here.
New LSAG advisory note
The Legal Sector Affinity Group (LSAG), which includes the Law Society of England and Wales and all the legal sector supervisors named in the Anti-Money Laundering (AML) regulations, has jointly published an advisory note, highlighting key AML risks and challenges for the legal profession associated with the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.
The advisory note covers:
-AML risks to legal firms and vulnerabilities that criminals may seek to exploit during the crisis
-non face-to-face identification and verification, and associated digital identity services
-issues to consider regarding policies, controls and procedures, data protection and information security
The note can be viewed here: https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/support-services/advice/articles/lsag-advisory-note-covid-19-and-preventing-money-laundering/
Rule of Law
The second reading of the Domestic Abuse Bill took place in the House of Commons on Tuesday 28 April and the Law Society briefed members of Parliament on the Bill ahead of this. While we welcome the introduction of some of the Bill’s proposals, such as expanding the definition of domestic abuse and banning alleged abusers cross-examining victims in court, our view is that some proposals do not go far enough and alleged abusers should also be banned from examining certain other witnesses – for example the couple’s child – in court. The date for the report stage has not been announced.
We submitted a response to the president of the Family Division’s rapid consultation on remote hearings for family proceedings. In our response we welcomed how quickly remote hearings were able to be scheduled in light of the coronavirus crisis, but we also noted a number of associated concerns, such as potentially onerous technological requirements, whether solicitors are able to advise their clients properly during these hearings, and the ability for parties to participate fully in a way comparable to physical hearings. We noted that in some types of case, for example those requiring interpreters, remote hearings may not be in the interests of justice at all.
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministry has launched an inquiry on the impact of Covid-19 on homelessness and the private rented sector, to which we are responding. This asks for consideration of the measures implemented so far by the government in the private rented sector, for the homeless and those who are rough sleeping as well as the problems still being faced and suggested solutions.
We responded to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s consultation on delivering immigration advice and services. We supported the proposals made to provide accountability of immigration advisers to the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, and encouraged the SRA to make similar provisions for solicitors. We also engaged with the Home Office on outstanding issues relating to immigration in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the legal status of automatic visa extensions for NHS workers.
We submitted a response to the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into Coronavirus and the impact on people with protected characteristics. This examined how government measures introduced in response to Covid-19 have impacted on people’s protected characteristics, covering issues such as domestic violence, mental health and disability, and the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.
Brexit and international
The Brussels office and the Brussels advisory group held a conference call in which the aim was to update members on the UK-EU FTA negotiations and the likely impact for UK legal services and judicial cooperation. The discussion helped to connect with our members in Brussels and to discuss with them how the Brussels office is adapting its engagement with stakeholders and members in the current environment.
The Brussels Office participated in the BBUKOO (Brussels-based UK organisations and offices) plenary meeting where the UK Mission EU negotiation team gave an update on the previous week’s negotiation rounds. This was an opportunity to hear directly from the UK negotiators about the various issues discussed, such as services.
On 23 April 2020, the French National Bar Association (Le Conseil National des Barreaux CNB) hosted a digital G7 Bar Leaders meeting to discuss their responses to the coronavirus crisis. I spoke about the actions we have taken to help the legal profession during the coronavirus crisis. Leaders from the national bar associations and law societies of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the USA also spoke about the situation for lawyers, justice systems and the measures they have taken to support the rule of law in their jurisdictions. Watch the video discussion in full below. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2UcWjW7Vn8
On 27 April, I attended a roundtable hosted by the Law Society of Hong Kong on “Resilience through COVID-19”. More than 60 international organisations were represented in the discussion. I was one of six speakers on the challenges and opportunities facing law societies and bar associations through this time and how they can best assist their members. It is clear that keeping dialogues open with member lawyers and provided guidance and information is critically important at this time. The second part of the discussion focused on the conflict between measures taken to protect human health and the infringement of human rights. The Law Society is monitoring this issue in its jurisdiction alongside other lawyers associations across the globe. We will continue to engage with our international colleagues on these matters and share best practice in order to develop a coordinated approach.
We have been in the media this week to promote the role and value of the profession in difficult times
BBC Today (1:32:00) looked at possible changes to jury trials to meet the crisis – reported also in the Times (£), BBC, Telegraph, FT (£) and Express. A new working group has been created, including the Law Society, to consider weekly how and when jury trials might resume safely.
Ian Kelcey, who is on the group and co-chair of our criminal law committee, spoke about the challenges facing solicitors’ firms – claiming that “there is a very real risk that in the long term we will lose 70-80% of criminal legal aid firms as a minimum”.
Law Society Gazette meanwhile reported 71% of high-street firms believe they may have to close their doors in the next six months as result of the coronavirus crisis. The story is based on a survey of our members. I said: “The shock to the legal services sector has been sudden and severe. There are widespread concerns over liquidity as firms face a dramatic plunge in income with work falling away.”
Cris McCurley, who is on our Access to Justice Committee, took part in the Shelagh Fogarty show on LBC (From 1.33) on Monday, to talk about domestic violence and how to get help in an emergency.
Kieran Bowe, a member of our Wills & Equity Committee, took part in a phone-in with listeners on a different edition of the same programme on the signing of wills and inheritance, in light of the coronavirus.
In a joint letter to the Independent, along with domestic abuse organisations, I voiced concerns that victims are at risk during lockdown. I said: “Making non-means tested legal aid available for domestic abuse cases would allow all victims access to legal support.”
As always, please feel free to share this update with your members.
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