Pandemic laws disproportionately impact the vulnerable
Simon Davis: Vulnerable clients struggle to participate in remote hearings
A Law Society report has highlighted that emergency laws imposed in response to covid-19 have had a disproportionate impact on society’s most vulnerable. It sets out a range of recommendations ahead of a government review of the rules, stating: “When reducing individual rights and safeguards in relation to the provision of public services it must be ensured that appropriate routes to redress remain open and accessible including access to solicitors and independent complaints or inspection processes.” Law Society president Simon Davis said that the laws and policies introduced in response to the pandemic “limited state responsibilities to an extent not seen in the UK since World War II”. “Those living in prisons, immigration detention or care settings, disabled people, children and victims of domestic abuse are particularly dependent on the state”, he said, “and have been disproportionately impacted.” The report, Law Under Lockdown, recommended that the domestic abuse commissioner should be consulted as part of future lockdown planning and discussions to ensure protecting victims remains a key priority.
Though noting that many of the measures anticipated strains on resources, he warned that many citizens have been unable to access legal advice. “Some of the measures reduced obligations on the state to provide public services, in social care and for children, and removed safeguards protecting people’s rights to these, at the same time as avenues for redress were suspended,” he commented. In response to a survey sent to solicitors as part of the Law Society’s research, one criminal law solicitor said the trial of a 14-year-old defendant was moved from June 2020 to February 2021. He is being held in a secure detention centre. He went on: “If he is found not guilty then he will have served what would be a 2.5-year prison sentence without actually having committed a crime and that is totally unacceptable.”
Access to legal advice in institutionalised settings has been restricted, with “limited contact with their family or their solicitor for prolonged periods, removing an essential element of external scrutiny of conditions in institutions”, said Davis. Remote hearings have been particularly challenging for some, including young people with mental health issues or learning disabilities, language barriers and for litigants in person. Davis commented: “Only 16% of solicitors who responded to our survey told us that the vulnerable clients they represent were able to participate effectively in remote hearings, indicating an unacceptable barrier to justice for this group for a range of legal issues.” The Law Society also warned that the expected increase in possession proceedings will bring problems with a lack of legal advice to the fore, even though legal advice for those facing eviction is essential.
Among its key recommendations, the Society called on government to adapt or remove measures which, where they have been barely used if at all, had inadvertent adverse effects. It called for further investment in the courts and technology with particular focus on those less able to communicate remotely through technology; and to provide non-means tested legal aid for those most at risk. There should also be improvements in data collection and evaluation. The report recommended: “HMCTS should collect and publish comprehensive data which enables the impact of remote hearings to be monitored, which includes disaggregation by protected characteristics and other vulnerability factors”. Davis commented: “As we enter a second wave of this pandemic it is essential that lessons are learned so responses to this ongoing crisis are improved.”