Legal aid lawyers in the early stages of their career have highlighted the toll that the coronavirus outbreak is taking on their professional lives.
The Young Legal Aid Lawyers group is collating evidence to help inform discussions with representative bodies and the government, and shape ‘best practice’ recommendations for law firms and barristers’ chambers. The survey closes on Friday.
Most respondents so far say they are ‘extremely worried’ about their financial situation.
One solicitor said: ‘The lack of criminal work may shut down the firm if the Legal Aid Agency refuses to institute a regular payment scheme.’
A criminal barrister said: ‘I will be making zero money until the courts start calling trials in again. Most hearings are being adjourned as well. All of my work for the duration of any lockdown and/or closure of the criminal courts has gone… Devastating. My income has completely stopped overnight. My clerks are great and are finding every little thing they possibly can to bill, and similarly the Crown Prosecution Service are turning around payments swiftly, but I will run dry within two months.’
Self-employed pupil and junior barristers who have not submitted tax returns point out that they are not eligible for government support.
One lawyer with caring responsibilities said they have had to move out of their home to continue working without placing their mother, who has serious health issues, at risk.
Another is having to go to police stations and courts, where they sit in small rooms for long periods of time with clients. ‘The courts are not set up to socially distance for example, when you need a quiet word with the prosecutor or to take a couple of extra instructions from your client,’ the respondent said.
A respondent working for a charity said: ‘We do not have work mobiles, so are expected to ring clients from our own phones with withheld numbers. It is hard to get in touch with clients as they do not answer unknown numbers.’
Some positive responses have been received.
A pupil barrister said: ‘My supervisor is great. She contacts me regularly to check I am OK but she has to wait for guidance from chambers and the Bar Standards Board.’
Respondents highlighted the benefit of flexible working hours. One said: ‘Allowing me to shift my hours so that I can take a longer lunch break to walk the dog for longer during the one occasion we are allowed out the house per day for exercise.’
*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.