Warning over coronavirus impact on legal profession
By Rob Freeman | 5th May 2020
The Bar Council has warned the justice system is facing "real trouble" as the coronavirus pandemic has major impact on the legal profession.
Jury trials are suspended with crown courts dealing remotely with sentencing of people in custody and preliminary hearings while magistrates are also operating on a limited, remote basis.
Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council which represents barristers, said: "We can't bury our heads in the sand and ignore the ramifications this virus has for the future of justice which affects the public in a direst way, day in day out.
"Legal issues cannot be put off indefinitely.
"If we fall into the trap of routinely delaying hearings, adding to the ever-growing backlog of cases and taking work away those whose livelihoods depend on it, we might find there are no barristers left to help pick up the pieces of the justice system after the crisis subsides.
"The access to justice in England and Wales will be in real trouble."
She was responding to a survey which suggests 53 per cent of self-employed barristers cannot survive six months under the current conditions with 74 per cent saying they cannot survive a year.
And 88 per cent of criminal barristers predicted they will no longer be practising within a year.
That comes on top of a Law Society survey, as reported in Punchline, which says 71 per cent of community law firms say they were on the brink of collapse following a sharp drop in earnings.
Law Society president Simon Davis said: "The shock to the legal services sector has been sudden and severe.
"There are widespread concerns over liquidity as firms face a dramatic plunge in income with work falling away."
The House of Commons Justice Select Committee debated some of the issues facing the legal profession yesterday, including a pre-pandemic backlog of more than 37,000 Crown Court cases and delays of many months in Family Court cases getting under way.
Among those giving evidence was Cheltenham's Conservative MP Alex Chalk, a former legal aid barrister and now Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice.
He has welcomed £5.4million in new government funding for those most in need through not for profit organisations and Law Centres across England and Wales.
The funding is designed to help organisations to continue to provide vital legal advice throughout the pandemic, increase capacity, and deliver services remotely.
Mr Chalk said: "Law Centres and charities in the advice sector play a vital role in helping people access justice and resolve their legal problems.
"That is why they should be supported to continue to operate safely and effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic
"This additional £5.4million support fund will help do just that - giving providers the support they need to boost remote capability and help as many people as possible in these challenging times."
The legal profession has made changes during the pandemic with increased remote working to help with social distancing.
And BPE partner Helen Cankett, head of the Cheltenham solicitors' family department, believes courts have adjusted to lockdown.
She said: "Local courts are now set up to handle hearings remotely, primarily by telephone, and the court office is triaging work based on the Ministry of Justice's list of priorities - care work, urgent private law children work, decree absolute applications being the top priority.
"The message from both the judges and court staff is that they are endeavouring to keep it as business as usual."
She continued: "It has thrown up some interesting arguments regarding cases where a remote hearing by video would not be appropriate as the live evidence would not be captured as well as it would need to be, potentially prejudicing one or other of the parties.
"Careful consideration needs to be given as to whether a remote hearing can truly be in the client's best interests and this is something we are carefully weighing up in each case.
I think there has been a slowing down but I wouldn't say it has ground to a halt, unlike criminal work, primarily due to the suspension of jury trials."
Tom Hall, BPE's senior associate in commercial litigation, stressed that the court system is no more immune to the profound impact of COVID-19 than any other in society.
He said: "Both from a presentational and legal perspective, the system must - to the extent where it is possible - be seen to be open for business to ensure the Rule of Law is upheld.
"It is fair to say that the appetite for commencing non-urgent litigation has diminished.
"The court has implemented a number of innovative measures to ensure the most urgent work is still undertaken, such as publishing listing guidance for practitioners which is updated daily and conducting hearings remotely via Skype for business."
He continued: "Practitioners should still play their part to alleviate the burden on the court system by adopting a more pragmatic and collaborative stance than might be the case in usual times."
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