Every time I come across another headline about Covid-related redundancies, I immediately think about how many of those employees are about to become one of the millions to fall into the ‘hidden justice gap’ highlighted by the Law Centres Network in its Law For All report last month.
However, what I didn’t fully appreciate until I spoke to Pete Moran, head of Cumbria Law Centre, shortly before the report was published, was just how small a push was needed for many to fall.
Cumbria Law Centre is familiar with the justice gap. Moran tells me that much of the county has relatively low unemployment, but it is a low-paid economy. People live in small towns and villages. Public transport is scarce and expensive. Many will have negligible disposable income but, because of their gross income and assets, they don’t qualify for legal aid.
Moran says: ‘What we have seen during Covid here is that there was an eye of the storm, where things were relatively calm. It’s only now we’re starting to see the first surge in demand, from people who are simultaneously losing their jobs or losing their hours. As a result, they are already on the verge of potentially losing their home.
'The number of people potentially falling into that gap was already a very large proportion of the county. But being very stoical and self-sufficient, most of them managed to stay afloat. But, as soon as something like Covid-19 comes, even a reduction in hours by one day a week - that tips someone in that position from treading water to drowning quickly.’
The Law Centres Network is right to say in its report that law centres need to diversify their funding sources, recognising that over-reliance on government is not a long-term solution. Equally important is the recognition that public awareness of law centres’ work currently does not correspond with its importance.
‘The recent Covid-19 crisis demonstrated that both the legal sector and the government recognised the importance of law centres and the need for our survival. Our challenge now is to ensure that the British public recognises this vital role, too,’ the report says.
With unemployment likely to soar as the government’s furlough scheme comes to an end, this challenge is more pressing than ever.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.