33.The number of cases of coronavirus has fallen significantly from its peak in mid-April and the Government has been gradually releasing restrictions. HMCTS, the Judiciary, the CPS and legal professionals have worked together to restart some ‘socially distanced’ jury trials since mid-May. On 30 June, Robert Buckland wrote to us with an update on Court and Tribunal recovery, which included news of an extra £142 million investment for courts maintenance.” This includes £37 million to speed up ‘digitalisation’. On 1 July 2020, HMCTS published an overview of its response to coronavirus with ‘building blocks’ stretching into the Autumn and beyond. In it HMCTS said: “We are now working with the judiciary to increase the volume of hearings conducted across all jurisdictions with the aim of getting back to and then above pre-covid levels in each jurisdiction.”
34.It is important that the legal professions are in good shape to deal with the increase in demand for legal advice and representation that is on the horizon. The Legal Aid Practitioners Group submitted evidence to us that:
“There will be a surge in client demand as soon as the lockdown is lifted, the courts re-open, embargoes on issuing possession claims are lifted, debt collection resumes, and criminal trials and police activity returns to something approaching normal.”
35.We explored several measures with the legal profession and Ministers and were encouraged by the Ministry of Justice’s willingness to look for ways to help the professions.
36.Robert Buckland told us
“I accept that more is sought, and I am working very hard, not just with the Treasury but internally, to see what more can be done to help the flow of regular income to the professions, particularly those at the sharp end of legal aid. What attracts me is the idea of making sure that, for example, a solicitors firm can have a regular monthly income that keeps the firm viable and keeps it afloat, because we are going to need their capacity not just now but in the future. Similarly, with the Bar, I want to see whether we can do more to reflect the particular cash-flow problems that I know many practitioners are facing, particularly young practitioners and returning practitioners.”
37.Amanda Pinto, Chair of the Bar Council, suggested to us that there could be alternative verification of income for those very junior barristers without a 2018–19 tax return. We recommend that the Ministry of Justice considers the Bar Council’s proposals for using alternative evidence (other than tax returns) for bringing new barristers and returning practitioners within the remit of the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme and that it report back to us on whether it decides to adopt the proposals and, if not, provide the reasons for that decision.
38.Simon Davis, President of the Law Society, and Bill Waddington, Chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, made a strong case that changes were needed to the system of regular monthly payments of criminal legal aid with any repayments postponed until a time when the legal services providers can afford it. We asked Alex Chalk MP, for his view on this. He told us “It is one of the issues that is being looked at as we speak.” We recommend that the Ministry of Justice considers the Law Society’s detailed proposals for payment and repayment of monthly payments (to solicitors firms and not-for-profit providers) and that the Ministry of Justice reports back to us on whether it decides to adopt the proposals and, if not, provide the reasons for that decision.
39.The Law Centres Network submitted written evidence to us in which it said “… we have said publicly from the outset that to survive the pandemic Law Centres would need grants-in-aid.”23 April, Alex Chalk wrote to us to say that a new two-year grant which will invest £3.1m over 2 years to support for litigants in person had got underway (putting into effect a pre-existing commitment under the Ministry of Justice’s 2019 Legal Support Action Plan). This money will be available to the advice sector. On 4 May, we asked Alex Chalk, about grants for not-for-profits generally (not just to help litigants in person) and support for those at the bottom of the profession. He said:
“ I can certainly say that both of those are critically important and are being given very careful consideration.”
We recommend that the Ministry of Justice considers further grants for law centres and other not-for-profit legal services providers that are at risk of collapse. The Ministry of Justice should report back to us with its decision and provide its reasons if it decides not to provide such grants, and state what provision it will make for users of the centres that cease operations.
40.We also asked Alex Chalk about help for those just above the £50,000 cut-off for the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme and about including the legal services providers in the relief from business rates scheme. He told us that
“ everything is being given the most active consideration. My officials are working extremely hard and liaising very well, whether it is with the CBA, the Bar Council or the Law Society, to thrash all these out, and will continue to do so. I am grateful to them for their engagement.”
41.On 23 June, we asked Robert Buckland about business rates relief, and he suggested that his requests to the Treasury were unlikely to be fulfilled but that he was looking for other imaginative solutions. The Ministry of Justice should consider how it can help those self-employed practitioners whose profits are just above the £50,000 threshold and how it can help legal services providers with their business rates, and, if it decides to do neither, should provide us with its reasons for those decisions.
42.We urge the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency to continue to be creative as to how legal aid is administered so that the legal professions are not further damaged by inflexible processes and contractual requirements on top of the problems arising directly from the coronavirus crisis.
45 , 30 Jun 2020
46 HM Treasury, , July 2020, paras 2.53 and 2.65
48 , (May 2020), p 2
53 , June 2020, p 2
54 , 23 May 2020
Published: 3 August 2020