Lawyers give muted response to legislative plans in Queen’s Speech

Competition reform, secret courts and changes to defamation pricked the ears of lawyers during the Queen’s Speech yesterday.

The Government’s legislative plans for the next year were set out and included the merger of the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and Competition Commission in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.

As reported in The Lawyer (15 March 2012), new watchdog the Competition and Markets Authority will streamline processes, but has drawn concern over proposals to remove the ‘dishonesty test’ for criminal cartels.

Hogan Lovells competition partner Angus Coulter said: “The key concern for lawyers specialising in this area remains the Department for Business Innovation and Skills’ proposal to remove the need to show dishonesty as part of a criminal prosecution.  This seems the wrong way to compensate for the OFT’s difficulties in prosecuting the offence as it stands. 

“Many practitioners are hoping that the Government has listened to the groundswell against this change since the earlier announcement and will not include it in the bill.”

In the Justice and Security Bill, the Government has brought forward plans to expand secret hearings, otherwise known as closed material procedures,  into civil courts. The controversial proposals have been criticised by senior human rights groups and lawyers who feel ministers are coming under pressure from the security services because of intelligence being revealed in deportation cases.

The Libel Reform Bill has been developed further from a draft bill and aims to replace ‘substantial harm’ to reputation with a stricter test of ‘serious harm’ for defamation. It intends to abolish costly trials and curb online defamation and libel tourism, as well as rebalance the freedom of speech with the protection of reputation.

The Crime and Courts Bill includes proposals to introduce cameras into courts.

On the Public Sector Pensions Bill, which highlights the Government’s plans to press ahead with pensions reform, Charles Russell partner Caoimhe O’Neill said: “The Government needs to take control of the message that they wish to deliver. With the additional intention of introducing a pensions bill to provide ’dignity in retirement’ and the fact that auto-enrolment in pension schemes will commence in 2012, the time is ripe for a wider discussion about how we plan for our retirement and what role the state will play in that.”