The government today unveiled a support package it claims will help legal aid practitioners weather the coronavirus pandemic while maintaining access to justice.
The Ministry of Justice acknowledged that measures to protect court users, the judiciary and lawyers – such as consolidating work into fewer buildings and pausing jury trials – has caused subsequent delays in cases progressing through the justice system and a reduction in new cases.
As a result, additional measures have been introduced to help legal aid practitioners ‘manage their funds in the short term’.
Hardship payments for Crown court cases, whereby lawyers would be paid before a case ended, will be easier to access. The threshold for work done was previously £5,000 – this has now been reduced to £1,000. The case also had to last six months but the timescale for this will be reduced.
Payments for virtual hearings in appeals before the mental health tribunal, and remote advice in police custody, will be increased so that they are in line with in-person hearings. The Legal Aid Agency will pause pursuing outstanding debt.
Lord chancellor Robert Buckland said he wanted to express his sincere gratitude to the legal aid practitioners ‘who have shown immense flexibility and determination throughout this outbreak’.
Buckland said: ‘These measures are a clear indication of their important status both in times of crisis and beyond and the role they play in ensuring the justice system continues to function effectively. I will continue to work with the sector to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are provided with the representation and support they need through our legal aid system.’
The Law Society welcomed the government’s efforts to help solicitors make payment claims earlier than they usually would. However, whether the response is adequate depends on how quickly the police and courts can find new ways of handling more routine work and maintain a volume of cases.
Simon Davis, president, said: ‘It will also depend to what extent, if and when some form of normality resumes, workload increases above their pre-crisis levels - enabling practitioners to recover lost income. This cannot be presumed. Even if so, it would require practitioners to incur significant additional costs long before they see such an increase. Thus there is significantly more that needs to be done to ensure the criminal defence sector is able to make it through this crisis.
‘It is vital that the LAA processes claims as quickly as possible whilst avoiding technical objections. The MoJ must keep its door open and respond urgently to any further feedback from the profession about the measures needed to enable practices to survive.’
Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, said today’s measures ‘will have little impact on the many criminal legal aid barristers whose livelihood depends on conducting important criminal trials. The changes, albeit made in a spirit of helpfulness, will have no effect on the overwhelming majority of criminal barristers’.
*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.