Conservatives pledge to match-fund criminal law pupillages

Courts: Nightingale courtrooms to stay open under Tories to help tackle backlog

The Conservative manifesto offered little new for the legal profession, except for support for a Bar Council proposal to match-fund 100 criminal law pupillages.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto had more of interest, including a pledge to make the legal aid system “simpler, fairer and more generous” – at the weekend, a LibDem peer admitted that the coalition’s cuts to legal aid went too far.

The Tory manifesto blamed the court backlog on Covid – although it was already substantial before the pandemic – and said it would seek to cut it “by keeping open Nightingale courtrooms, funding sitting days and investing in court maintenance. And we will continue to digitise court processes and expand the use of remote hearings”.

There was no repeat of the unfulfilled 2019 pledge of a royal commission on criminal justice.

But the party promised to “match fund 100 criminal law pupillages to speed up justice for victims and will continue to ensure access to justice through legal aid provision”.

Writing in April, Bar Council chair Sam Townend KC said that, with the support of the inns of court, Criminal Bar Association and circuit leaders, it had provided the government and opposition with “detailed proposals including costings and details of administration” for such a scheme.

“This proposal is a result of the stark current circumstances – there is a record-high backlog of cases stuck in the Crown Courts and there are not enough criminal barristers to service the work…

“The matched funding for pupillages proposal offers a practical solution and may help (alongside other measures to improve retention) to ensure a long-term pipeline of criminal barristers to take cases, keep the system moving and help clear the backlog.”

The Bar Council proposal was that it would be targeted primarily at criminal pupillages, but that the scheme would also accept chambers which offered pupillages in other publicly funded areas of work.

The Conservative manifesto pledged to expand the pathfinder courts pilot in family court proceedings – which are testing a less adversarial and more investigative approach to managing private family law cases, with a particular focus on domestic abuse and bringing the voice of the child to the fore – and to maintain mediation vouchers for private family law disputes.

It continued: “We will support our world class legal services sector, including through an Arbitration Bill. We will help individuals and small businesses bring cases against wealthier opponents with legislation to support third party funding of litigation.”

This indicates that the Litigation Funding Agreements (Enforceability) Bill – which was lost when the election was called – would be revived.

There was nothing in the manifesto on home-buying reform, but the Tories said they would “complete the process of leasehold reform” by capping ground rents at £250 and reducing them to peppercorn over time.

“We will end the misuse of forfeiture so leaseholders don’t lose their property and capital unfairly and make it easier to take up commonhold. We will pass a Renters Reform Bill that will deliver fairness in the rental market for landlords and renters alike.

“We will deliver the court reforms necessary to fully abolish section 21 and strengthen other grounds for landlords to evict private tenants guilty of anti-social behaviour.”

There was no specific mention of the European Convention on Human Rights but, in relation to Rwanda flights, the manifesto said that “if we are forced to choose between our security and the jurisdiction of a foreign court, including the [European Court of Human Rights], we will always choose our security”.

The “legal merry-go-round” of immigration would end, it said. “We will stop illegal migrants from bringing spurious challenges to block their removal by bringing our Illegal Migration Act into force and clearing the asylum backlog, with all claims processed in six months.”

Other pledges of interest included:

  • Expanding the provision of legal aid at inquests related to major incidents where the newly created independent public advocate is appointed or in the aftermath of terrorist incidents;
  • Intensifying “the fight to stop money laundering and dirty money and ensure all British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies adopt open registers of beneficial ownership”; and
  • Lifting the employee threshold so that more companies can be considered medium-sized. “This is expected to save small businesses at least one million hours of admin per year”.

The LibDems said they would establish “a new right to affordable, reasonable legal assistance” and make the legal aid system “simpler, fairer and more generous”. This would help in tackling the backlogs in the family courts.

To tackle the criminal court backlogs and reduce the number of people in prison on remand, they would set a clear target of halving the time from offence to sentencing for all criminals, and implement “a properly funded strategy across the criminal justice system to achieve it”,

This would come with “a new data strategy across the criminal justice system to ensure that capacity meets demand, and to understand the needs of all users, especially victims, vulnerable people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds”.

A workforce strategy would “ensure” there were enough criminal barristers, judges and court staff.

Employment rights were another feature of the manifesto, including a new right to flexible working for everyone, and a right to work from home for every disabled person, unless there are “significant business reasons why it is not possible”.

To address the ‘gig economy’, the LibDems would establish a new ‘dependent contractor’ employment status in between employment and self-employment – with entitlements to basic rights such as minimum earnings levels, sick pay and holiday entitlement.

They would shift the burden of proof in employment tribunals regarding employment status from individual to employer.

Other pledges included:

  • Introducing the Hillsborough Law: a statutory duty of candour on police officers and all public officials;
  • Immediately banning no-fault evictions, making three-year tenancies the default, and creating a national register of licensed landlords;
  • Abolishing residential leaseholds and capping ground rents to a nominal fee;
  • Establishing a dedicated unit “to improve the speed and quality of asylum decision-making”, introducing a service standard of three months for all but the most complex asylum claims to be processed; and
  • Championing the Human Rights Act and resisting “any attempts to weaken or repeal it”.

Labour’s manifesto will be published on Thursday.

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