The Queen’s Speech this year was delivered on 11 May. It is normally an annual event, but this has not been the case in recent years. The previous Queen’s Speech was in November 2019, when we reported on the government’s proposal to get 26 bills passed into law. This year, there are 31 bills that ministers intend to pass. Some of these bills are carried over from the last session of Parliament, but against the backdrop of Brexit and the pandemic, this is not all that surprising.
What were the government’s priorities in 2019?
Top of the agenda was new legislation on Brexit. There were seven bills to create Brexit-related legislation, seven criminal justice bills, plans for an independent NHS investigations body, an environment bill setting out improvement targets, proposed reforms to the divorce laws, and changes in employment law.
Bills such as those on criminal justice, employment law and the environment were amongst those carried over to this year’s Queen’s Speech. One notable bill from 2019 that was passed into law was the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill. This included provision for no-fault divorce in the UK, which is a much-needed reform to matrimonial law. Unfortunately, despite being passed into law, the complexity of changing the way people get divorced in the UK has meant the earliest the law will be implemented is April 2022.
Legislation for 2021
So, what are the priorities now, and which will have particular impacts on the legal profession? Included in the Queen’s Speech this year are proposals dealing with:
- Constitutional reforms that not only might bring significant change to the law but arguably may weaken how the UK is seen as a beacon of the rule of law. The Judicial Review Bill is planned to change how government decisions can be challenged in the courts.
- Infrastructure and “levelling up”, which includes a post-Brexit Procurement Bill. The Procurement Bill will have significant impacts on aspects of contract law.
- Borders and security, which includes a controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that may restrict some forms of peaceful protest.
- Housing reform through two bills that may create significant new work for conveyancers. One is a long-awaited Planning Bill intended to bring the first major reforms to planning law since the 1990s. The other is a Building Safety Bill aimed at regulating the safety of high-rise buildings.
- Land law reform through a Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill that will seek to ban the collection of ground rents for new leasehold properties.
- Education reforms aimed at encouraging more adult participation, an objective of the new Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. The impact of this on legal training and the emerging legal apprenticeship market may be interesting to watch.
- Finally, environmental protection, with several post-Brexit rules designed to protect nature being introduced by an Environment Bill. This is another set of reforms that may have significant knock-on effects for lawyers specialising in land and environmental law.
Obviously, any changes to the law are of interest to the legal profession. Some of the proposals are what you would normally expect in any given year. Other proposed reforms may have significant and lasting impacts on our legal system. The proposed change to judicial review is the main proposal that has raised concerns in the legal profession. The President of the Law Society, Stephanie Boyce, voiced some of these concerns, saying that the changes to judicial review risked “taking power away from citizens and putting more into the hands of government.” She also pointed out that “judicial review is an essential check on power” that allows individuals to uphold their rights.
The government’s intention, as stated in the Queen’s Speech, is to “renew democracy” and “restore the balance of power between the executive, legislature and the courts.” It is not clear if the proposals would achieve these aims. Perhaps more importantly, it is unclear if there is a need to adjust the balance of power away from the courts in the first place.