The start of July marked two decades since the first transfer of functions to the National Assembly for Wales.
Wales now has its own government, a legislature with extensive primary law-making powers and a recognition that ‘the law that applies in Wales includes a body of Welsh law made by the Assembly and the Welsh Ministers’.
Welsh legislation has diverged from the combined ‘England and Wales’ laws of the last century and is doing so in innovative and seismic ways. Some examples of Welsh laws include presumed consent for organ transplants and the Wellbeing of Future Generations framework.
Solicitors across England and Wales should understand the impact of devolution. These developments are not just a matter for solicitors based in Wales or in fields of law which are ‘devolved’. Welsh devolution affects the development of our entire jurisdiction and every member of the profession.
Looking ahead here are some of the key developments on the horizon, in practice and in the business of law in Wales.
A Commission on Justice is nearing the end of its inquiry in Wales. The remit covers access to justice, crime and rehabilitation, jurisdictional arrangements, legal education in Wales and the legal services sector.
For over a year the Law Society’s Wales office has been working with the commission. We have held focus groups looking at the challenges for firms in rural areas and with young solicitors. Large commercial firms and legal aid focused practices have had an opportunity to share their experience and opinions with commissioners.
In April, the Wales office made a formal submission to the commission. The Welsh Counsel General has agreed with the recommendation in our submission that the Welsh government 'should be proactive in developing a jurisdictional solution to the accommodation of Welsh law and the distinct needs of Wales' and endorsed our view this should be done 'without creating barriers [for the operation of justice or the ability of practitioners to work across England and Wales]'. The commission is expected to report in the autumn.
In recent years, the Welsh government has also recognised the need to improve the clarity, transparency and accessibility of Welsh law.
To deliver this, the Welsh Counsel General, has introduced the Legislation (Wales) Bill which includes requirement for a legislative programme in each Assembly term to consolidate and codify Welsh law.
The first area of law to be ‘codified’ will be Welsh planning law. A Law Commission project recommended creating a new planning code which the Welsh government is keen to take forward.
New legislation is only part of the issue, the counsel general is also reviewing the Law Wales / Cyfraith Cymru website to make Welsh law as accessible as possible to the public.
The website was intended to explain the law in each devolved field and act as a site where practitioners and others could contribute to the development of the law through posting articles and case reports.
Unfortunately, it has not developed in this way and solicitors are being invited to inform and work with the counsel general to develop the website. The Wales office will be organising events for solicitors to facilitate this work.
Solicitors have an important role to play in the development of Welsh law and practice. The legal services sector in Wales makes a substantial contribution to the Welsh economy. The Law Society’s Wales office is working with Welsh government to innovate in the sector and will be holding events to inform and promote solicitors in the autumn.
The Wales office is developing the way we communicate our activities so you know more about what’s happening in the law in Wales and can get involved. The Work in Wales webpages will be refreshed over the summer to improve the information available. The Wales office welcomes feedback and views from solicitors across Wales and England.
Kay Powell is policy adviser and interim head of Wales