Coronavirus: MPs warn of access-to-justice crisis as two-thirds of solicitors face going bust by autumn
Young and BAME legal professionals are being disproportionately affected, MPs warned (PA)
MPs have warned that the effects of the coronavirus pandemic could leave many with “no access to real justice” as up to 5,000 legal firms face going bust.
The Justice Committee urged the Government to step in after a Law Society Gazette poll found that 63% of solicitors feared they could go bust by the autumn.
And, in a separate poll, the Bar Council warned that 56% of barristers said they were unlikely to remain in the profession past October due to financial pressures.
MPs are also urging the Government to ensure that diversity among barristers is not hit by the crisis amid concerns that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and state-educated members of the bar are seeing the greatest drop in income.
Courts were already under pressure prior to the pandemic, with 37,000 cases waiting to be heard in the crown courts before the crisis, and 400,000 awaiting allocation in magistrates’ courts, the MPs say.
Justice Committee chair and Tory MP Sir Bob Neill, said: “Let’s be honest about this. I know some people won’t have a lot of sympathy for lawyers who dress up in fancy gowns and speak a language of their own.
“People are under the misapprehension they are all on comfortable incomes. Some are, but very many, especially given their recent big drop in workload, are not."
He added: “The Ministry of Justice needs to consider further grants for those working in Law Centres and others in the not-for-profit Legal Aid sector.
“Otherwise, the next time a victim of a crime or a defendant—both of whom may be on modest incomes—has a brush with the legal system, they may find they have no access to real justice.”
Many courts across the UK were closed at the start of lockdown in March and those that remained opened operated at reduced capacity due to social distancing, leading to a 40% drop in requests for criminal legal aid.
The report warns that this drop in income will hit younger and BAME legal professionals, as these groups are “disproportionately represented in the publicly-funded Legal Aid sector already cash-starved before Covid-19 hit”.
It urges the Government to set out how it will ensure the sector was in “good shape” once the crisis eased, adding that there has been an “increase in demand for legal advice and representation on the horizon” once courts were given the go-ahead to resume as normal.
In May, the Ministry of Justice announced £5.4 million in new funding for specialist legal advice charities to help them continue operation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sir Bob added: “During the crisis, it is especially important that the legal professions properly represent the society they serve.
“The Ministry of Justice should set out how it will make sure that this pandemic does not disproportionately affect the incomes of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, or state-educated, legal professionals.”
Giving evidence to the Justice Committee last month, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said: “I am working very hard, not just with the Treasury but internally, 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.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “COVID-19 presents an unprecedented challenge but we have kept the justice system running by prioritising urgent cases, rapidly increasing remote hearings, introducing Nightingale courts - and investing millions in buildings and technology.
“We are supporting legal professionals further by providing extra funding while deferring debts and will set out wider measures to help support the sector shortly.
“This builds on an unprecedented economic support package to help firms and the self-employed during these difficult times.”
Responding to the report, Amanda Pinto QC, Chair of the Bar Council, said: "This report rightly acknowledges the far-reaching impact that Covid-19 has had on the operation of the justice system, particularly on jury trials.
“It is crucial that access to justice for the public is at the heart of any next steps, and that proposals to help clear the backlogs in all jurisdictions are viewed through this lens."