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What you need to know
1. Government announces investment in legal aid
The government announced the first substantial injection of funding for criminal legal aid in 25 years on Tuesday (15 March).
The Lord Chancellor announced that the Ministry of Justice has accepted the 15% uplift in almost all criminal legal aid rates as recommended by the Independent Review of Criminal Legal aid in its report published last year. Further changes to fee structures alongside the increased investment should also help to ensure that fees paid better reflect the work required on cases.
Alongside this commitment, the government will also:
- implement the review’s recommendation of an advisory board to support joined-up thinking across the justice system, and
- put in place training grants to help encourage new solicitors into criminal legal aid work
The Law Society, which has been calling for significant investment in the criminal legal aid system for several years, has welcomed these proposals as the first step in improving the sustainability of the criminal justice system. It is unclear, however, if this new funding will be enough to halt the exodus of many solicitors from criminal legal aid work. We will now be focusing on ensuring the uplift reaches practitioners as soon as possible.
Speaking in the House of Commons, the Lord Chancellor, Dominic Raab, said this funding would put criminal legal aid on a “sustainable footing” and welcomed the response of the Law Society to the announcement.
The government will now consult on its proposals until June, with a statutory instrument to be introduced in parliament following the consultation period, to implement the changes to fees.
2. Legal aid means test eligibility extension
The government announced proposals to extend eligibility for criminal and civil legal aid, with a £20m funding boost to increase the means test thresholds, on Tuesday (15 March). The government will consult on the proposed changes, alongside the separate consultation on changes to criminal legal aid.
The Ministry of Justice has said that the proposals will make an additional 3.5 million people will be eligible for criminal legal aid, while two million more people will become eligible for civil legal aid. The financial cap on eligibility for Crown Court defendants will also be removed.
The Law Society has campaigned heavily for these changes, with our research highlighting how many people below the minimum income standard were being forced to pay contributions towards legal aid costs, despite being unable to afford them. We have welcomed the government’s announcements but still have concerns about:
- the level of bureaucracy for those on universal credit applying for legal aid, and
- whether there are enough civil and criminal legal aid firms to meet public demand
3. SLAPPs reform plans announced by government
The government’s consultation will look at whether:
- a legal definition can be established to create a higher threshold for SLAPP cases
- the courts need stronger powers to strike out such cases as an abuse of process
The government will also consider strengthening the public interest defence in defamation law, limiting legal costs in SLAPP cases and allowing the courts to place restraint orders on repeat litigants.
A wider review of safeguards in libel law will be undertaken, and the regulatory regime will also be considered. The Lord Chancellor noted in his statement to parliament that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) recently issued new guidance on SLAPPS, and said his department will assess whether the guidance is working and is sufficient.
The government’s consultation will run until 19 May, and the Law Society will be making a submission.
Separately, the Foreign Affairs Committee held a session on SLAPPs on Tuesday (15 March). A number of law firms were named as having brought SLAPPs on behalf of their clients, and a number of proposals for addressing the issue were put forward by the witnesses at the session.
4. Economic Crime Act receives Royal Assent
The Economic Crime Act had its committee stage and all remaining stages in the House of Lords on Monday (14 March) before receiving Royal Assent that same evening.
A number of government amendments were brought forward and passed by the House of Lords, including several that went some way towards closing potential loopholes around registering the beneficiaries of trusts – a key issue that the Law Society has highlighted in our briefings to parliamentarians.
The Law Society was referenced directly during the debate by Lord Fox (Liberal Democrat), who cited our briefing on his amendment that sought to extend a duty of due diligence to all stages of client take-on and transactional/advisory work. He recognised our argument that it would “create a significant burden on professional services such as law firms that would be difficult for them to meet”, suggesting that this shows that “there is work to be done in this area”. Ultimately the amendment was not put to a vote.
The Law Society has welcomed the passing of the act, which we have said gives investigators a much improved ability to shine a light on who is the beneficial owner of a UK property.
We have also argued that the government should look to make further improvements during implementation of the act, including completing the reform of Companies House and resolving some of the issues that remain in the People with Significant Control regime, to ensure that the new legislation is as strong as it can be.
The Law Society will be working closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills and inquiries:
If you made it this far…
Take a look at our civil legal aid desert maps, showing how millions are unable to access a local civil legal aid provider. Since 2018, legal aid deserts in housing, community care and other areas have worsened, depriving many of a route to justice.