Theresa May’s announcement of a general election on 8 June has killed off key legislation affecting the legal sector and put the future of several policy initiatives in doubt.
The government last Thursday dropped the Prisons and Courts Bill after conceding there was insufficient time for it to pass before parliament dissolves next week. The bill had already cleared report stage in the House of Commons and was in committee on the day May gave notice of her intention to call an election.
Legislators were seeking to enact radical prison reforms, and introduce virtual hearings in England and Wales courtrooms, online guilty pleas for minor offences and sweeping reforms to personal injury claims.
Law Society president Robert Bourns welcomed the chance to rethink the ‘misguided’ reforms to whiplash claims, which included a new tariff system. But he wants the new government to make it an ‘absolute priority’ to reintroduce proposals providing protection for victims of domestic violence from being cross-examined by the alleged perpetrator, as well as statutory provisions to modernise courts.
If the Conservatives are re-elected, many are expecting the bill to return quickly, potentially with extra provisions for reforming the discount rate formula for personal injury claims.
Huw Evans, director general of the Association of British Insurers, said his organisation is pleased to have the chance to revisit the bill and extend the definition of whiplash.
‘The task now is to win the argument for both issues to be dealt with as a priority in the new parliament so there are no major delays to much- needed reform,’ said Evans. ‘Issues like the increased cost of insurance for motorists and businesses, and the £6bn bill for the NHS are not going to go away.’
Qamar Anwar, managing director of claims handler First4Lawyers, said personal injury lawyers could not afford to celebrate the bill’s demise. ‘There is every chance that a victorious Conservative government would seek to resurrect the reforms in part five of the bill,’ he said. ‘Now is not the time to sit back and relax.’
The Howard League, meanwhile, said prison reform looks likely to be ‘in a state of stasis for months’, as a new government potentially means a new lord chancellor (see Rozenberg, p10).
The planned introduction of controversial new fees for probate was also in doubt as the Gazette went to press. Under the overhaul, announced earlier this year, fees would be set in line with the value of the estate rather than a flat fee. In some instances it would result in fees being increased by a factor of up to 129, to £20,000.
The Ministry of Justice previously said the proposals would be considered in parliament after Easter and implemented shortly after. The MoJ planned to rely on existing legislation, section 92 of the Courts Act 2003 and section 180 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. However, a provision in the 2014 act suggests approval from both houses may be needed ‘if a fee is in excess of the cost of anything in respect of which the fee is charged’.
Also facing potential delay is UK ratification of the treaty setting up the new Unified Patent Court. In order to be ratified the proposals need to be approved by both houses of parliament.
IP solicitors told the Gazette that the plans will almost certainly be delayed and could even be abandoned.