The government has been urged to learn lessons from the first wave of the coronavirus and make its legal aid safety net scheme more easily accessible as the country braces itself for further lockdown measures to prevent a second wave.
Lockdown measures introduced in March have already had a significant impact on the Legal Aid Agency's exceptional case funding scheme, with a 23% drop in applications between April and June compared to the same period last year.
Research published today by Public Law Project (PLP) highlights the challenges that would explain the falling number of applications.
One respondent told PLP: 'There are no internet cafes or libraries open, therefore, clients who are not very IT literate and do not have access to scanners etc, struggle to get the evidence to us. We do accept pictures taken on the phone, but that also requires some skill to even fit the whole pages into the frame as well as the fact that due to the large volume of documents required, at times this can be overwhelming for clients.'
Some practitioners said the switch to remote working meant they could not access the necessary resources to make ECF applications.
One said: 'My paralegal would usually deal with making the applications to the LAA but she is furloughed. I also need to focus on bringing in private work to keep paying staff. The ECF cases are high workload but low fee and I always make a loss on them.'
Public Law Project wrote to the lord chancellor in April requesting changes to the ECF scheme during the pandemic. In response, justice minister Alex Chalk said the LAA was relaxing evidence requirements and allowing electronic signatures and submission of evidence by email.
However, most practitioners who spoke to PLP said they were unaware of steps that the LAA had taken to improve access to the scheme, as well as legal aid more generally, during the pandemic.
One respondent said: 'More could have been done to support the scheme, such as, a dedicated help line as the general line is usually not even able to provide basic advice and tend to signpost to the email enquiry address which takes more than 48 hours to get a response.'
The report acknowledges that the Ministry of Justice has introduced measures in response to the pandemic but further changes are urgently needed to improve access to the ECF scheme.
PLP says: 'The potential for further disruption... means that it is essential to now reflect on what was learnt from the first wave of the outbreak and how access to ECF has been affected.
'Where effective changes have been implemented, these have not been communicated sufficiently with legal aid providers. In the current climate of uncertainty for legal aid providers and increasing concerns about the sustainability of the sector, it is essential that the ECF scheme functions effectively to ensure legal aid is available to individuals whose human rights would otherwise be breached.'
Emma Marshall, a research fellow at Public Law Project, writes in today's Gazette on the 'exacerbated' ECF problems.
*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.