The government presses on with court reform programme but ditches prison reforms in a slimmed down Queen’s Speech.
The Prisons and Courts Reform Bill was dropped to make way for the June 8 snap election. Although as the Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke pointed out yesterday that the legislation ‘enjoyed broad parliamentary support and had made real progress through parliament’. It was scheduled to be debated in its committee stage when Theresa May made her announcement.
‘This is a missed opportunity to forge ahead with prison reform,’ Clarke said. ‘The law would have required the government to respond to our findings. We will continue to report the harsh reality of what we find in our prisons – all too many of which are dangerous for prisoners and staff alike and are failing in their duty to rehabilitate and reform prisoners.’
There was a legislative programme comprising 27 bills announced yesterday including eight that dealt with Brexit. Chancery Lane broadly welcomed the package. ‘Unravelling and redefining ties and laws made over the past 40 years, while providing as much certainty to individuals and businesses as is possible is a task of real complexity,’ said Law Society president Robert Bourns. ‘The government’s focus on providing this certainty is welcomed, and we hope the series of bills announced today will allow Parliament to work through these issues carefully, and give them the scrutiny they deserve.’
The Law Society also welcomed ‘a renewed focus’ on ‘protecting the rights of the most vulnerable was also warmly welcomed’. ‘Our laws must be accessible to the most vulnerable in our society, and it was pleasing to see that the government will give this attention in the coming parliamentary session,’
A Courts Bill promises to end cross-examination of domestic violence victims by their alleged perpetrators in the family courts and allow more victims to take part in trials without having to meet alleged assailants.
It would also enable those charged with less serious criminal offences to plead guilty, accept a conviction and pay a statutory fixed penalty online. The Bar Council warned that the plans risked ‘trivialising’ potentially serious consequences for defendants. ‘Defendants must be offered a genuine choice about how they enter their plea,’ commented chair of the Bar Andrew Langdon QC. ‘They must also be made aware of their right to consult a lawyer. Inviting defendants to use an online procedure to indicate a plea risks trivialising potentially serious consequences for those accused of committing offences.’
There will also be a Civil Liability Bill to tackle the perceived ‘compensation culture’ around motoring insurance claims; a Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, establishing a ‘Domestic Violence and Abuse Commissioner’ for victims and survivors; a Tenant’s Fees Bill banning landlords from charging letting fees; and a Data Protection Bill to bolster individuals’ rights and introduce a ‘right to be forgotten’.
Vidisha Joshi, managing partner of Hodge Jones & Allen, said it was ‘hugely disappointing’ that the Government has decided to continue with it plans for personal injury. ‘It is the young, the elderly, the mentally incapacitated, those with special physical and educational needs and those for whom English is not their first language who will be disproportionately hit by these reforms,’ she said. ‘… The proposals are nothing short of scandalous – taking money from innocent accident victims and giving it to insurance companies and motorists, even though they actually affect all personal injury claims, not just road traffic related. The idea that motorists will save £35 is nothing but pure spin. Insurers have never passed on savings to date, I doubt very much they will start doing so now.’
The Law Society called the government’s personal injury reforms ‘a string in the tail’. ‘We are very disappointed that the government has decided to revive its misguided whiplash reforms,’ Robert Bourns said. ‘It will be a clear injustice if the government persists with denying essential legal advice to those injured through no fault of their own – if government is truly committed to targeting fraudulent claims, it should do just that.’
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