Editorial: We are working to ensure access to justice during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond
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Marc Bloomfield
The impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on those needing advice and representation has been immense. Has the nature of the assistance needed changed? Have some groups stopped seeking assistance altogether?
Lockdown restrictions may have been eased slightly since they were announced on 23 March 2020, but the legal and advice sector has made enormous changes to respond to needs. It has been increasingly concerned about how people are accessing advice and representation. As an access to justice charity, LAG has reflected in Legal Action many of the sector's concerns. We have also been involved with other organisations working on our three key concerns:
1There has been increased unmet legal need as a result of COVID-19 and the lockdown measures – we have seen, for example, the increased risk of domestic violence during the lockdown. But the next year, years or decade of austerity resulting from COVID-19 will see an exponential rise in debt, health, community care, employment needs. What is the plan to meet those needs?
2Depletion of the sector – firms and advice centres have been badly hit financially and some will have suffered irreversible harm and will close down. The support from the government is not enough to keep many afloat in view of the loss of other income, in particular the loss of charitable funds and the inability to hold many planned fundraising events, and there are particular concerns for those reliant on legal aid income.
3(Dis)functionality of the court and justice system as a whole – some courts have been closed and others have been running but with reduced numbers of cases. Many are now getting back to business but there are concerns about the safety of staff and court users. LAG, like many others, is concerned that remote (in)justice is resulting in damage either because hearings have not been possible or have not been as effective. There is particular concern over, for example, access to detained people – which has been inadequate – and there is no clear plan how to get back on track. For an illustration of some of these concerns, see Sue James's article in last month’s Legal Action).
For people in lockdown with a perpetrator of domestic abuse, the past few months have seen an increase in the number of hurdles that need to be overcome. The government has recognised this issue and taken steps. On 26 May, Alison Lamb, CEO of RCJ Advice, informed us that its FLOWS domestic abuse service has responded to 1,156 issues this month. Before the lockdown, the highest number of calls and emails FLOWS had received in a single month was 534, a figure that rose to 752 in April.
She confirmed that RCJ Advice has seen an increase in welfare benefit and employment enquiries as well as queries about child arrangements. This is backed up by other organisations, which are reporting increases in welfare benefit and employment enquiries. There are concerns about potential discrimination in furloughing decisions.
Citizens Advice website pages advising on benefits hit 2.8m views over the period 16 March – 6 May, including almost one million for those pages featuring guidance on universal credit. Meanwhile, pages on employment advice, including sick pay or furloughing, were viewed 2.3m times – a 77 per cent increase on the same period last year.
Toward the end of April, Age UK reported that there had been a huge rise in calls to its helpline – 'reaching an astonishing 88 per cent increase at the height of concern’.
At the same time as numbers have spiked in some areas of law, they have declined in others. RCJ Advice has had fewer enquiries about housing and debt, due to possession and payment holidays. AdviceUK reported that, from January to May, numbers were down in all areas of social welfare law except employment. Chilli Reid, the organisation’s executive director, said:
There are probably three reasons for this overall decline: (1) reduction in service delivery; (2) issues around clients being unable to access advice services, especially those who are digitally excluded (‘disappeared’ clients); and (3) government measures that have reduced the demand for advice in the short term, eg, payment holidays and suspension of possession and enforcement proceedings reducing the demand for debt advice.
Shyam Popat, head of casework at Advocate, told us that April saw a 21 per cent decline in applications compared with February. ‘This reflects the fact that referral agencies are under pressure and may not be aware that people can now apply directly,’ he said, ‘but – and much more worrying – we cannot be reached by the most vulnerable applicants who are digitally excluded or shielding due to health conditions.’
Advocate predicts a spike in eviction, employment and family/child cases once lockdown is over. The Money and Pensions Service is of the view that demand for debt advice will increase significantly in three to six months’ time. There is likely to be a similar increase in other areas of social welfare law, eg, welfare benefits.
LAG is working with many other representatives of the sector tackling the problems faced by those seeking assistance. Many organisations have moved to remote working and advising by telephone or video call in a very short space of time. It is essential that the services provided meet the needs of people not just now, but in the months and years ahead. LAG will continue to work to ensure access to justice and fair process.

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.