As the impact of COVID-19 deepens, the MoJ and the LAA need to step up to the plate
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Marc Bloomfield
‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’ According to the Harvard Business Review,1Patrick Vlaskovits, ‘Henry Ford, innovation, and that “faster horse” quote’, Harvard Business Review, 29 August 2011. Henry Ford probably did not say that. However, the phrase resonates for many reasons. It may be because a person feels that they know better than their actual or potential customers or clients, or it may be because some people see the potential for game-changing developments while others do not.
In the justice system, there has been a move to digital solutions. Professor Richard Susskind is at the forefront of advising the government on digitising the court service. Professor Roger Smith, in his international comparison work especially, is at the vanguard of critiquing what works and what does not. The Legal Education Foundation commissioned his report, The digital delivery of legal services to people on low incomes (summer 2019) and his blog, Law, Technology and Access to Justice.
Over the years, there have been numerous unkind comments suggesting that the legal profession is resistant to change and particularly IT innovation. Yet the reality for many in the legal aid sector is that they have embraced whatever they can to make their practices more efficient. The Legal Services Commission (as it then was) pushed this agenda by early on asking for email contact and case management software.
The profession is only too aware, however, of the problems clients face if services are available online. Many vulnerable people find it hard to deal with problems at all. Even if they identify that they have a legal problem, they may feel too overwhelmed to seek advice or they may be deterred by having to use on online service. And many people have nowhere to go for legal support. It is therefore almost impossible to track what is happening with disputes and any resolution that might or might not follow.
What none of us could have predicted, however, is the impetus for change that has come with the coronavirus. The government has just ramped up the advice it is giving to the population. Much is devastating: the effect on people with poor health; the lack of hospital provision that is anticipated; the failure to test that raises so many questions. Much is confusing: people are being asked to isolate if they are in contact with someone with coronavirus or if they have symptoms, but if there is no testing, that could mean some are off work for months. That may be manageable for people with a salary who can work from home, but the impact is hard to take in.
Preventative measures are likely to be in force for months, so will the court service use this to push forward the digital agenda?
Preventative measures are likely to be in force for months, so will the court service use this to push forward the digital agenda? There are endless online platforms that will enable court cases to proceed as long as everyone involved remains healthy (and that may be where this unravels). The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has stated that judges can consider audio or video links in a number of circumstances. However, its updates appear to lag behind changes in government advice.
But at the time of writing, there are so many mixed messages: we are told to stay at home and avoid unnecessary travel and contact, but court hearings are still going ahead. According to lawyers on Twitter, juries are sitting in close contact and often in unsanitary conditions. Those working with prisoners are extremely worried about their clients’ health as well as their own. With school closures, how will working parents manage? Juggling work and childcare is an everyday activity for them but we are now entering uncharted territory – how many more balls can they keep in the air? Informal childcare – grandparents, friends and neighbours – is less likely to be available.
The legal aid sector is struggling already. Many organisations, whether private practice or not-for-profit, do not have much in reserve. They need to protect their staff. The nature of client interaction will change. Work will drop off. Income will be erratic. The self-employed bar and advocates, consultants, police station reps – all will see a drop in income. What will be done to help these organisations survive? How will the self-employed cope?
The government has a difficult job to do. It has to balance saving lives in the pandemic and trying to stop the economy crashing even more. Saving the justice system is only part of the bigger picture, but prisons, courts and the legal aid system are already stressed after years of austerity. The government needs to listen to experts and give clear guidance. The MoJ and the Legal Aid Agency need to be flexible and imaginative in what they do and to act urgently.
 
1     Patrick Vlaskovits, ‘Henry Ford, innovation, and that “faster horse” quote’, Harvard Business Review, 29 August 2011. »

About the author(s)

Description: Carol Storer - author
Carol Storer is interim director of LAG. She was director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group for 10 years until November 2018.