The Coronavirus Act 2020 made provision for the expansion of the use of remote hearings in courts and tribunals. The report states that it is ‘broadly accepted that remote hearings can work well and improve efficiency for straightforward cases and for hearings involving only judges and advocates’ (page 15), but The Law Society’s survey of solicitors identified serious concerns. Only 45 per cent of the respondents said that they believed that their clients were able to participate effectively in remote hearings and this dropped to 16 per cent for vulnerable clients.
Delays in hearings is an issue that pre-dates the virus, the report says, but notes that these are now much worse. A large majority of solicitors responding to the survey (81 per cent) reported that delays had increased as a direct result of the pandemic, and 76 per cent reported that these had significantly impacted ‘on the rights and wellbeing of their clients’ (page 10). A family and children law solicitor responding to the survey said:
People going through divorce and children matters do not want to wait for over a year to conclude matters ... it has been very difficult getting responses from most family courts. This has caused great distress to the clients (page 11).
The report predicts a sharp rise in housing possession cases after the temporary measures to prevent evictions are removed. The Law Society argues that the master of the rolls’ suggested two-stage model for possession hearings should be adopted. This would involve a review day followed by a full hearing three weeks later and would give the parties more opportunity to seek legal advice and representation. The report also calls for an urgent review of the housing possession court duty schemes (HPCDS), arguing that ‘the unfavourable terms of the HPCDS contracts, combined with the reduced listing of cases, make the scheme financially unviable for providers’ (page 22).
The Coronavirus Act 2020 introduced temporary measures that allow for the reduction of obligations for public sector service providers. Some have not been used, for example, the legislation allows for a report from a single practitioner, rather than the usual two, to be required to detain someone in hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983. The suspension of duties under the Care Act 2014 was only taken up by a few local authorities (eight out of 151).1Mithran Samuel, ‘Eight councils have triggered Care Act duty moratorium in month since emergency law came into force’, Community Care, 30 April 2020.
The report argues that as lockdown measures are eased, the appropriateness of these, and other powers given to public authorities, should be reviewed.
‘While parliament voted to renew the provisions of the Act, the findings of the report should not be ignored they raise important issues around the impact of measures to combat the virus, particularly on access to justice for vulnerable people,’ said Carol Storer, LAG’s interim director.