The coronavirus pandemic is pushing ‘an already fragile’ legal advice sector to ‘breaking point’ with as many as half of all front-line agencies facing closure, according to legal charities. An emergency appeal by the National Advice Fund, the Access to Justice Foundation and the London Legal Support Trust has been launched to support law centres and other advice agencies.
‘The COVID-19 epidemic has put further stress on what is already a fragile sector,’ commented Ruth Daniel, CEO at the Access to Justice Foundation. ‘Following years of cuts, the sector is now close to breaking point. Many agencies will be forced to close over the next two to twelve months unless urgent action is taken by the wider social justice community.’
The Law Centres Network has set up a fund to help law centres which, director Julie Bishop said, ‘were operating on a knife edge financially’ before the pandemic.
Bishop told the Law Society’s Gazette that several centres had sufficient reserves for only four to eight weeks. ‘Normally that’s OK because work in progress comes through. But the issue is when the tap is turned off,’ she added.
City law firms including DLA Piper and Mishcon de Reya have so far committed £85,000.
Is it me, or is this – given the scale of social justice crisis and scale of city lawyers’ earnings – actually not very much? 🤷♀️ https://t.co/99YAuJhrsc
— Fiona Bawdon (@FionaBawdon) April 3, 2020
Meanwhile more then four out of 10 young legal aid lawyers are fearful of their job security as a result of the pandemic and a quarter are still being required to attend court. The findings came from a survey of more than 300 members of the Young Legal Aid Lawyers conducted over the lockdown period.
A quarter of members felt that they were being required to put themselves at risk of infection because of their job, including attending police station interviews and face-to-face meetings with clients. Eight out of 10 young barristers reported that their workloads had ‘significantly decreased’ or been ‘decimated’ by the crisis. One barrister noted that COVID-19 was having a ‘devastating’ financial impact as their ‘income had completely stopped overnight’.
YLAL make the following recommendations:
- The Legal Aid Agency should take urgent action to ensure the financial viability of providers. This should include continuing to make regular payments to providers based on their usual legal aid income.
- There should be a consistent approach to social distancing and hygiene in courts and police stations.
- The Council of the Inns of Court should take steps to ensure a coordinated approach between Inns of Court to ensure that the most junior legal aid barristers do not experience financial hardship.
- The Bar Standards Board should remove its agreement for chambers to vary pupillage awards that have already been advertised.
- The Solicitors Regulation Authority should confirm that training contract periods will not be extended if a trainee has sufficient experience to qualify.
Anyone wanting to make a donation to the appeal here