A significant number of lawyers, particularly those serving people most in need, are at risk of not being able to continue in practice because of the Covid-19 crisis.
Not my words, but those of Tony Blair’s former lord chancellor Charlie Falconer, recently restored to the opposition front bench as shadow attorney general.
Lawyers are hardly alone in that predicament, of course. But of all the business sectors demanding bespoke assistance from those who dispense fiscal largesse (and what sector isn’t?) the legal profession has a more compelling case than most.
Why so? One reason was given by the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe in a 10 April letter to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. Across the continent, the council noted, lawyers are suffering the full brunt of the economic constraints imposed by the crisis, yet are largely excluded from the aid schemes envisaged by national governments.
In the UK, some of chancellor Rishi Sunak’s much-trumpeted business continuity initiatives do in theory include lawyers. But they have got off to an indifferent start. Despite Sunak’s hasty amendment of emergency loan conditions to get the money out more quickly, relatively few SMEs of any sort (let alone law firms) have received any help so far. As I write, only one in five of the UK businesses which have formally applied for government-backed loans has been granted the bailout money they so desperately need.
The second reason is more obvious. With due respect to the hospitality industry, say, or professional football, the state needs a properly functioning legal sector far more.
To quote the CCBE again: ‘Lawyers provide an essential service in a democratic society and must be supported. Solutions, including financial support, must be found urgently for them, for their professional structures, for the entire profession.’
The Law Society has produced a business continuity toolkit which includes guidance on the various Covid-19 government assistance schemes available. See here.