Justice Committee evaluates impact of pandemic crisis measures on legal profession and courts
Marc Bloomfield
Two recently published reports by the Justice Committee have highlighted the crisis that the legal profession is facing due to the measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact these are having on the courts and tribunals.
Many firms, barristers and not-for-profit providers are, the committee says, facing financial difficulties due to the reduction in work caused by lockdown and the other measures to control the virus. Figures in its report published on 3 August 2020 (Coronavirus (COVID-19): the impact on the legal professions in England and Wales. Seventh report of session 2019–21, HC 520) show big reductions in civil and criminal legal aid cases. For example, there has been a 34 per cent fall in civil legal help cases and a 41 per cent drop in police station attendance cases (page 7). According to the chair of the committee, Sir Bob Neill MP, people believe that lawyers are all ‘on comfortable incomes’, but many are not due to ‘their recent big drop in workload’ (‘Support lawyers now or they may not be there when justice is needed’, Justice Committee news article, 3 August 2020).
The Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) warns that ‘without state support that goes above and beyond what is currently on offer through government relief schemes, a significant number of providers will collapse in the months ahead’ (Briefing for Justice Committee evidence session on Monday 4 May examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the courts and legal professions, LAPG). According to a survey The Law Society had conducted, 63 per cent of sole practitioners and 71 per cent of firms with four partners or fewer had said that a combination of cash flow pressures and the reduction in fee income ‘could put them out of business by the autumn’ (‘Many high street law firms face collapse, research suggests’, Law Society Gazette, 30 April 2020, cited at para 23, page 9 of the Justice Committee report).
According to the Law Centres Network (LCN), due to the measures to control the pandemic, the 41 Law Centres in England and Wales are losing around £500,000 a month in income (Evidence to the House of Commons Justice Committee: inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on the justice system). LCN does not believe that the support measures introduced so far, such as the Legal Aid Agency’s offer of more payments on account, are adequate. It warns that ‘the entire not-for-profit legal advice and rights sector is at risk right now’ and criticises the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for its ‘distinct lack of urgency’ in responding to the ‘dangers to the advice sector and legal aid’.
The lord chancellor and justice secretary, Robert Buckland QC, said he is working hard within the MoJ and with the Treasury ‘to see what more can be done to help the flow of regular income to the professions, particularly those at the sharp end of legal aid’ (‘Support lawyers now or they may not be there when justice is needed’).
In its report on the courts and tribunals (Coronavirus (COVID-19): the impact on courts. Sixth report of session 2019–21, HC 519, 30 July 2020), the committee pays tribute to ‘everyone in the justice system’ who has ensured that they have continued to function during the crisis (para 1, page 4). It expresses concerns that the family courts, magistrates’ courts and Crown Courts ‘appear to have fared the worst’ during the ongoing crisis (para 2, page 4).
The large backlogs of cases accumulating in both the magistrates’ courts and Crown Courts are highlighted (see pages 9–10). In contrast to parts of the civil system, the committee argues that technology has not assisted the criminal courts in dealing with the backlog of cases. It believes this could lead to a ‘significant crisis in the criminal justice system’ (para 22, page 10) and concludes that closing courts before introducing technological and other reforms aimed at increasing the system’s capacity has ‘left the criminal justice system in a difficult place going into this period of crisis’ (para 26, page 11).
The committee believes there is also a backlog of cases in the family courts. After an initial dip, the number of new cases presented to the courts is continuing at normal levels with significant increases in certain areas such as domestic injunctions (see para 31, pages 13–14). The report quotes the president of the family division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, who believes that in order to deal with the number of cases being presented to the court, it will need ‘a very radical reduction in the amount of time the court affords to each hearing’. (para 31, page 14)
The report acknowledges the progress that has been made, especially in the tribunals system, in adopting digital technology for remote hearings, but warned ‘there is an absence of data so far’ on how satisfied lay users are with these changes (para 40, page 16). It also warns that ‘COVID-19 should not be used as an excuse for bringing in permanent changes without prior consultation and suitable evaluation of effects’ (para 37, page 15).

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