What legal reforms are in the Queen’s Speech 2012?

 

This year’s legislative programme, set out in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday, is notable for its unusual focus on law reform. That is, the Government does not simply intend to make new laws but will be actively changing the way those laws are enforced. These are the legal highlights:

Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill

As its broad title suggests, this bill covers many aspects of the law. It includes everything from directors’ pay to green investment banks. Of particular note, however, are the reforms to employment law which will see three-person tribunals replaced with one judge, and the tribunals themselves limited to hearing only the more serious cases.

Children and Families Bill

The Government has been keen to be seen as supportive of families. Measures included range from giving parents more access to flexible working to help them balance family commitments to setting tough new deadlines in childcare cases.

Where divorce and separation are concerned, the bill looks likely to reform the law in order to give greater precedence to the principle that children should have a relationship with both their parents unless there is a strong reason for them not to. This bill also makes changes to adoption law, decreasing the importance of race in the hope that more children will be able to find permanent homes.

Crime and Courts Bill and the Justice and Security Bill

The Crime and Courts Bill seeks to introduce some modernising measures into the criminal justice system. Most dramatically, cameras are to be allowed into courtrooms for the first time in order to increase the transparency of justice. This measure has long been opposed by legal traditionalists who are concerned about the intrusion of privacy into the legal process, but supporters argue that justice must be open and seen to be done.

Conversely, the Justice and Security bill will extend the use of limited closed court proceedings in cases where the intelligence services are involved. This is so that a greater range of evidence can be introduced into court without the danger of revealing state secrets. The Government argues that this is necessary for national security but civil liberties groups have raised concerns about the validity of secret justice.

Defamation Bill

Reform of England’s ancient and confusing defamation laws has been mooted for some time. The measures contained in the draft bill are wide ranging, covering both substantive law and procedural issues. For litigants the most important change is that defamation will only be available as a cause of action if it can be shown that ‘serious harm’ has been caused, and special  preliminary hearings will be set up to determine this.

Gay Marriage

It was thought that the Government might introduce legislation to permit same-sex marriages. However, this was notably absent from the Queen’s Speech. At present, same-sex couples are permitted to become civil partners, with equal legal rights to married couples but it is considered a distinct institution.

With another head of state – President Barack Obama – announcing his support for gay marriage it would not be surprising if this issue found its way back into the legislative program before the next general election.

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