Less than a fifth of vulnerable clients are properly served by remote hearings, a solicitor survey has revealed, as the Law Society warns that coronavirus is having a disproportionate impact on people who rely heavily on the state.
In a Society study published today, just 16% of solicitors said their vulnerable clients were able to participate effectively in remote hearings, indicating an ‘unacceptable barrier to justice for this group for a range of legal issues’.
People with mental health issues, learning disabilities and language barriers are believed to be at a particular disadvantage, as well as litigants in person.
The Society also found that access to legal advice in institutionalised settings, such as prisons, immigration detention centres and mental health units, has deteriorated during the pandemic, with many left in limbo when visa processing, asylum applications and appeals were suspended.
In a series of recommendations, the Society urges the government to publish a framework of factors to be taken into consideration when deciding which hearings can proceed remotely, alongside an equality impact assessment. Hearings involving vulnerable parties should be considered for postponement, it said, particularly where an interpreter is required.
It also demanded investment in courts and technology to improve access to legal advice for those in institutional settings and address the backlog of cases in family and criminal courts, and Court of Protection.
Simon Davis, president of the Law Society, said: ‘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.
‘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.’
Emergency measures introduced under the Coronavirus Act in March are expected to be renewed soon, as the government warns of tighter restrictions to prevent a second wave of Covid-19.
*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.