Pledges for a Mental Health Bill, independent public advocates for families at inquests and measures to protect crime victims all featured in the Conservative party’s election manifesto, but there was a deafening silence on legal aid.
The only reference to it, in the 88-page documents was a line in the section headed ‘Strong defence in an uncertain world’ concerned with the armed forces. It said: ‘We will strengthen legal services regulation and restrict legal aid for unscrupulous law firms that issue vexatious legal claims against the armed forces.’
The throwaway line was likely prompted by the disciplinary cases involving the now defunct Public Interest Lawyers and the on-going case before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal involving three lawyers from Leigh Day who deny misconduct arising from their handling of cases against the British army.
To ensure that the ‘pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families over the last twenty years is not repeated’, the party pledged to introduce an independent public advocate, who will act for bereaved families after a public disaster and support them at public inquests – presumably as opposed to fully legally aided representation.
On Brexit, she promises, a Great Repeal Bill that will ‘convert EU law into UK law, allowing businesses and individuals to go about life knowing that the rules have not changed overnight’. Workers’ rights and protections given to consumers and the environment by EU law, it says, will continue to be available in UK law at the point at which we leave the EU, but the bill will create powers to ‘correct’ the laws that do not operate appropriately once we have left the EU. ‘Once EU law has been converted into domestic law, parliament will be able to pass legislation to amend, repeal or improve any piece of EU law it chooses,’ it says.
A Conservative government will not bring the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law, but neither will it repeal or replace the Human Rights Act ‘while the process of Brexit is underway’. Under a May administration, Britain will also remain signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights ‘for the duration of the next parliament.
Furthering its commitment to end the stigma of mental illness and improve mental health services, it promises ‘the first new Mental Health Bill for thirty-five years, putting parity of esteem at the heart of treatment’.
The manifesto says that the current Mental Health Act does not operate as it should, which has resulted in it being ‘very difficult’ for people to be discharged from community treatment orders and lead to sectioning as a use of detention rather than treatment.
On criminal justice, the manifesto said: ‘A strong criminal justice system requires a good legal system. We cherish our strong and independent judiciary. Our courts and judiciary are respected as the finest in the world.’ It pledged to continue to modernise the courts, improve court buildings and facilities and make it easier for people to resolve disputes and secure justice.
With a particular focus on the victims of crime it promised to bring forward a Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill to consolidate all civil and criminal prevention and protection orders and provide for a new aggravated offence if behaviour is directed at a child. The legislation will enshrine in law a definition of domestic violence and abuse, which is currently lacking.
The Tory government will create a domestic violence and abuse commissioner to stand up for victims and survivors, monitor the response to domestic violence and abuse and hold the police and the criminal justice system to account.
To support victims, it will review the funding for refuges and ensure that victims who have lifetime tenancies and flee violence are able to secure a new lifetime tenancy automatically.
Publicly-funded advocates will be given specialist training in handling victims before taking on serious sexual offences cases and child victims and victims of sexual violence will be able to be cross-examined before their trial without the distress of having to appear in court.
Other criminal justice plans include extending the scope of the Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme so a wider range of sentences can be challenged, pushing forward with plans to crack down on hate crimes committed on the basis of religion, disability, sexual orientation or transgender identity, and incorporating the Serious Fraud Office into the National Crime Agency.
On prison reform, it pledged to invest over £1 billion to modernise the prison estate, replacing the most dilapidated prisons and creating 10,000 modern prison places. It will also reform the entry requirements, training, management and career paths of prison officers, create a new legal framework for prisons, create a national community sentencing framework and introduce dedicated provision for women offenders.
Given the comprehensive nature of the first stage of the Leveson Inquiry and the lengthy investigations by the police and Crown Prosecution Service into alleged wrongdoing, a Conservative government will not proceed with the second stage of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.
It will also repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2014, which, if enacted, would force media organisations to pay the legal costs of both sides in libel and privacy cases, even if they win.
To combat homelessness and rough sleeping, it will implementation the Homelessness Reduction Act, with the aim of halving rough sleeping over the course of the parliament and eliminating it altogether by 2027.
The manifesto also promised a review of the application of the Modern Slavery Act to protect vulnerable men, women and children exploited for their labour.
As part of its tougher immigration policy, it will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas and toughen the visa requirements for students.
The manifesto also pledged to strengthen legal service regulation.
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