It is soon going to be the one-year anniversary of the first lockdown in England. It is too early to know when life will get back to normal. There is hope with the vaccination programme, but the coronavirus figures in January have been alarming.
The arrangements following on from Brexit are agreed, but the impact is not fully known. That story will unfold over the next few years. We have a national economy in recession, and it is difficult to know whether it will bounce back relatively quickly, ie, in a few years, or whether the Treasury borrowing will have an impact for decades to come. And for the legal and advice sector, which generally responded very nimbly to the changed circumstances, the future is increasingly uncertain.
At the January legal and advice sector roundtable1If you want more information about the roundtable, please email: email@example.com.
(an informal grouping of organisations and representative bodies in the sector co-chaired by Sir Robin Knowles and myself), representatives from the sector discussed their plans for 2021. It is clear that there will be remote working for much of the year. It is also evident that there needs to be much work on how best to serve clients, what the impact of digital working is, how it affects access, whom it affects, which groups are more affected, and how many people are lost because they cannot pop into their local trusted advice agency or local solicitors.
What is also concerning is the backlog of cases. There has recently been considerable press interest in the backlog, but, as criminal practitioners have repeatedly pointed out, it actually pre-dates the pandemic and has been caused by underfunding, manifested in a lack of judge sitting days, which meant that there were already unacceptable delays particularly for Crown Court hearings. Delays in the civil courts and in tribunals vary across the country.
But another feature of today’s priorities for the sector is the unknown number of people who will require advice once there is a significant change in circumstances. There are many people now on benefits, or with employment difficulties, or with family disputes, or housing problems, or problems with status arising from Brexit, and sadly there will be many people with a combination of these. Indeed, a representative from Shelter talked in the January meeting about their fear of a tsunami-level of clients seeking housing advice when the world returns to some semblance of normality.
In the meantime, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has had to contend with multiple crises. Like all major employers, it has to ensure the safety of its staff and users of its departments. There have been many examples given of unsafe court buildings and practices. If over 40 people are listed for hearing at the same time and all are sitting in the same waiting area, even if masked, it is no wonder that people having to attend courts feel unsafe. So, in the face of these challenges, we note that the MoJ is moving forward with its review of both civil and criminal legal aid. It needs to bring an urgency to this work.
At the same time, advice agencies that receive funding from local authorities have looked to local government finances with concern. Will already reduced funding be cut further? Will some agencies face closure, ironically at a time when their services are most needed? In common with other organisations, the inability to run face-to-face fundraising events as before effectively represents another cut. Online fundraising is being tried but the amounts raised are limited. Meanwhile, funders face an increased number of applications for grant money.
Is it possible – in the face of these overwhelming changes in income, client need and delivery models, indeed, of this economic crisis – that the government and the sector seize this moment to think again about the importance of advice and representation as part of the civic society? Can there be an understanding of the role they play and support from the government in helping identify a service that is fit for the next 10 or 15 years? (It is notable that the Welsh government has a strategy for advice and is positively proactive compared with England.)
We do not know if there will be future waves of coronavirus and its variants. We do not know how quickly the economy will bounce back. We do not know how local authorities will allocate their funds over the next few years. We do not know how many people will seek advice and need representation.
We do know that, in the past year, society has seen a profound change. We have all worried about friends, families and colleagues catching the virus and becoming ill, and felt helpless and desperate when there are deaths. We are only too aware of the economic uncertainty and the impact that this will have on millions of people.
But what if there could be a genuine attempt now to plan for the future? Collect meaningful data continuously. Work on a needs analysis and keep that ongoing. And the plan? Not a centralised plan dictating who delivers what, how and when but an infrastructure plan, a plan for funding – realistic funding (and ideally an easing of the bureaucracy in legal aid contracts) and an attempt to support advice workers and lawyers from the communities they serve.