Only one in six lawyers believe that remote hearings are suitable for vulnerable defendants, according to a new report by the solicitors’ professional group. In a new report, the Law Society is arguing that the government’s emergency measures introduced in the Coronavirus Act in March disproportionately impact on the vulnerable ahead of the government’s six month review of the legislation.
The group is making a number of recommendations ahead of the renewal of emergency measures, including deciding on a case-by-case basis whether to postpone hearings where the potential harm of having a remote hearing outweighs the urgency of the issue. They also call for publication of the factors used to decide whether a hearing should be permitted to go ahead remotely. According to the Society, 84% of solicitors said that remote hearings were not appropriate for vulnerable clients to be adequately served.
‘Emergency measures must be necessary, proportionate and any limitations on access to justice must be for as short a time as possible, balancing the need to contain the virus with ensuring that those who need legal advice or the protection of the court can obtain it,’ said Law Society president Simon Davis. He went on to say ‘we need more and better data, and further monitoring and evaluation of the measures that have been implemented. As we enter a second wave of this pandemic, it is essential that lessons are learned so responses to this ongoing crisis are improved.’
According to the Law Society, court backlogs have increased by 26% in criminal courts and 23% in family courts since the pandemic.
The report highlights how those living in institutionalised settings such as prisons have struggled to get access to adequate legal advice during the pandemic despite these emergency measures. Solicitors have had to wait for eight weeks to speak to their prison clients. ‘Owing to the woeful lack of staffing and lack of investment in technology, there is currently an 8-week plus wait for the first available legal video link… the summary trials are being listed earlier than the first time we can even meet our clients,’ one solicitor said. ‘Telephone appointments are not offered in any London prison except Thameside. Those clients who have credit can call us but the lines are not private and not suitable to take instructions in most cases. This is damaging client/ solicitor relationships. We are being expected to be ready to enter pleas and run trials without having sufficient time to go through papers with clients or take their instructions.’
The solicitors’ group highlighted the problem of mandatory evictions under section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, a speedy way for a landlord to evict a tenant which requires no fault on the part of the tenant. It makes the case for temporary measures ‘providing for some judicial discretion in some evictions that would otherwise be mandatory’.