This has been an extraordinarily difficult year. The coronavirus pandemic has turned people’s lives upside down in many ways. Too many people have lost their lives, their loved ones, their jobs, their sense of well-being, their security, and their ability to travel freely and see family and friends. Organisations have lost income. Employers have had to make tough decisions about furloughing staff or possibly shutting down.
The government’s handling of the crisis has added an extra level of stress for many. The pandemic was an unexpected, catastrophic event and countries need governments at the top of their game. Balancing the health and economic implications is tremendously difficult. There will be much analysis of what could have been done better to save lives and to reduce the effects on the economy and on people’s livelihoods.
Before the pandemic, there was already general worry about the lack of money and attention being given to the justice system, apart from funding for digital solutions. COVID-19 has forced the court service to move at greater speed to increase the number of digital hearings. Much has been said about the problems that these changes have caused as well as the positives they have brought. But even positive changes, such as the stay in possession proceedings and recruitment in the Crown Prosecution Service, have had knock-on effects, respectively on the future viability of those providing court duty schemes and in the loss of criminal defence lawyers.
However, the aim of this article is to find the positives, and the most important is that there may be a roll-out of vaccinations in a matter of weeks or months. As for the justice system, here are some reasons to be cheerful:
•There has been thoughtful work on the justice system:
•There seems to be an increased (and welcome) recognition of the importance of Law Centres.
•The tone of the Ministry of Justice’s recent work recognising problems in criminal and civil legal aid. Let’s hope it will support early legal advice while also tackling the serious problems elsewhere.
•The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) has taken important steps such as: encouraging capacity-building in the sector; tendering to encourage take-up of housing contracts in recognised advice deserts; and looking at more significant changes to the next set of crime and civil contracts. If these trends continue, that will be welcome.
•Suspending evictions was helpful, as was moving rough sleepers into accommodation. We hope work will continue along these lines.
•We have also seen increased focus on digital working:
•In some courts and with some judges, video conferencing has been useful, and this will be built upon. It is not enough, though, that the judiciary and lawyers find it convenient: parties’ needs must be taken into account.
•Many organisations have continued to deliver a service while staff work remotely from home. For all the jokes about Zoom and Teams meetings, many people who do not have to go into an office may be able to find a better work/life balance in future.
•Many organisations have worked collaboratively:
Access to justice funders’ response to the COVID-19 crisis has been impressive, ensuring prompt and thoughtful funding. The Legal Education Foundation’s Justice First Fellowships
continue to attract people into social welfare law.
•The collaborative work of representative bodies in their response to the pandemic has been important and augurs well for the future.
There has been a growing recognition of the importance of mental health and well-being (for example, LAPG’s survey over the summer and the recently launched large-scale LawCare
•Representatives from the judiciary, HM Courts & Tribunals Service, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the LAA and practitioners met in the Master of the Rolls’ Working Group to consider how the courts would deal with possession cases.
•Many giants of the legal aid and advice world have contributed much more than they have been paid to do – we are thinking of Vicky Ling, Matt Howgate, DG Legal, JRS Consultants and CrimeLine. They are important for 2021.
•We have seen members of the profession, including Alexandra Wilson and Professor Leslie Thomas QC among many others, speak out about diversity issues. We hope for positive change.
We applaud the extraordinary people who battle on trying to ensure access to justice: those representing vulnerable people, working long hours to prepare cases in the most difficult of circumstances – all those on the front line, speaking truth to power, and everyone trying to provide a service. 2021 will not be an easy year – everyone in the sector knows it. But they also know that the job they do is vital. LAG’s role is to support those trying to ensure access to justice.
We hope for the highest levels of propriety and competence in government, that the vaccines will work, and for a properly resourced justice system.
We wish everyone the best possible 2021.