Coronavirus (Covid 19): The impact on the legal professions in England and Wales: Government Response to the Committee’s Seventh Report

Fifth Special Report

On 3 August the Justice Committee published its Seventh Report of Session 2019–21, Coronavirus (COVID 19): The impact on the legal professions in England and Wales (HC 520). The Government’s Response was received on 2 October and is appended to this Report.

Appendix: Government Response

The Government welcomes the report from the Justice Select Committee on Coronavirus (COVID-19): the impact on the legal professions in England and Wales. We are grateful for the time given and expertise shared by the Committee in producing and publishing the Report.

The COVID-19 outbreak has created a range of challenges for the legal profession and we are working closely with legal practitioners and other providers of legal support across the justice system, to understand and respond to their concerns.

In response to the pandemic, the Government announced an unprecedented package of support measures to assist those impacted by Coronavirus. Legal practitioners and firms have been able to access support from the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS), the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) and the Bounce Back Loan Scheme.

Turning to the legal aid market, the Ministry of Justice and Legal Aid Agency introduced a range of measures to help legal aid providers to weather the coronavirus pandemic while maintaining access to justice for the most vulnerable in society. These include initiatives which support civil, family, and criminal legal aid practitioners to keep the justice system running:

Additionally, we announced in August that we would be taking forward the policy proposals from the accelerated areas of the Criminal Legal Aid Review (CLAR) that practitioners told us mattered most. The accelerated areas allowed us to inject up to £51million into criminal legal aid.

Throughout this challenging time, we have been innovative and adapted our ways of working to ensure that the courts kept running during the pandemic and access to justice is maintained, including a significant increase in the use of digital solutions. This has enabled us to increase the number of hearings we were able to hear, and since the pandemic thousands of remand hearings have been heard via video, enabling hearings to continue to take place despite the limitations of social distancing.

As the CJS legal system recovers from COVID-19, we want to continue improving how the courts use technology and are committed to monitoring and evaluating the impact of the use of video and audio.

We’re investing record amounts, with £153m to improve court and tribunal buildings – the biggest single investment in court estate maintenance for more than 20 years – and we’re spending £80m on a range of emergency measures to tackle to impact of Covid-19, including the recruitment of 1,600 additional staff. Our 17 Nightingale Courts will provide 32 extra court rooms to increase capacity and plexiglass screens in over 300 existing courtrooms have enabled us to safely open 250 Crown Court rooms for jury trials.

As one of the first among other comparable jurisdictions globally to resume jury trials, we are pleased that there have been good signs of recovery in our courts. As of 14 September 2020, we are handling over 100 jury trials Crown Courts – clearing over 1700 cases each week - and magistrates are beginning to dispose of more cases than are coming in. Magistrates’ courts are now dealing with most business type hearings. Since August magistrates’ courts have been completing more cases than have been received and the number of sittings are almost at pre-covid levels.

The progress made to introduce online access to services through reform has made a substantial difference in maintaining the operation of the courts and tribunals, enabling work to continue where reform is more advanced, and underlining the wider value of reform in supporting a more resilient and adaptable service. Those services which have already been reformed, notably divorce, probate, Social Security and Child Support, Immigration and Asylum, and jurisdictions using CE-File have proved more resilient to the impact of the pandemic and still been able to process thousands of applications.

Additionally, HMPPS has been working to increase video capacity in prisons in response to the increased demand. This includes expanding video conferencing capacity at those sites already supporting courts and the Parole Board, focusing particularly on prisons where current provision falls well short of demand. We will also be adding new capacity at sites that do not have existing capability or where the equipment is no longer fit for purpose. We expect to deliver a 50 per cent increase in capacity in the local and reception estate by the end of the financial year. We will also increase capacity in the training and resettlement estate, where the majority of prisoners of interest to the Parole Board are held. The first such additional links are already in operation at HMPs Leeds and Wormwood Scrubs.

As well as increasing video across prisons, we will be standardising and extending operating hours for prison video for local and reception prisons that service the courts and have a remand population. This will be instrumental in increasing the number of video slots to meet the demand of defence practitioners, or other professionals. It will enable access to video from 08:00 to 18:00 Monday to Friday and for some prisons will include Saturday access. These extended hours are intended primarily to meet the increase in demand from defence practitioners and other professionals whose virtual meetings with prisoners are critical for case progression. However, we will also be offering continuous cover throughout the normal court day, so that courts can continue sitting without breaking proceedings for the current extended lunch period. In terms of face-to-face legal visits, we now have an Exceptional Delivery Model in place as part of recovery planning which prisons and youth custody establishments are implementing to ensure those visiting are able to do so safely. The ability to offer face-to-face legal visits will also help to ease pressure on constrained video conferencing resources.

Looking ahead, we will continue to keep a close eye on the legal aid market to ensure access to justice is maintained. We are continuing to work closely with legal practitioners and other providers of legal support across the justice system, as we have since the beginning of the pandemic. In particular, we are engaging with them in relation to our proposals for the ongoing Legal Aid Means Test Review, which is due to be published in Spring 2021 on Criminal Legal Aid and Civil Legal Aid. Alongside this, we are looking into the sustainability of the civil legal aid system and will consider the delivery and contractual model for civil legal aid within this work. As part of our response to the Criminal Legal Aid Accelerated Areas consultation, we announced that the next phase of the review would include an independently led review of the market, to ensure it can meet demand now and into the future, provide an effective and efficient service that ensures value for money for the taxpayer, and continue to provide defendants with high-quality advice from a diverse range of practitioners. Alongside this we continue to look at the current fee schemes to ensure they keep pace with wider reforms across the justice system.

Thank you to the Committee for the work and insight that has gone into this report and the recommendations. We have taken time to consider the conclusions and recommendations set out in the report and have included the annex below.

RT HON ROBERT BUCKLAND QC MP

Annex – response to recommendations

Recommendation

2. There have been positive developments in providing online solutions to providing court services, but pending full roll out of HMCTS’s cloud video platform, we recommend that the Ministry of Justice sets out the steps it is taking to ensure that lay parties to hearings have access to the technology they need so that they can communicate well, and confidentially, with their lawyers. We also recommend that the Ministry of Justice reviews how well remote hearings have worked for all participants in all jurisdictions before rolling them out further. (Paragraph 12)

Response

Recommendation

4. It is important that the legal professions properly represent the society they serve, not least because they form a large part of the pool from which the Judiciary is drawn. The MOJ should set out what it will do to make sure that coronavirus restrictions on the justice system do not disproportionately affect the incomes of Black, Asian and minority ethnic or state-educated legal professionals, nor reduce their ability or desire to enter and work in the courts and tribunals system. (Paragraph 21)

Response

Recommendations

12. 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. (Paragraph 37)

15. 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. (Paragraph 41)

Response

Recommendation

13. 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. (Paragraph 38)

Response

Recommendation

14. 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. (Paragraph 39)

Response

Recommendation

16. 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. (Paragraph 42)

Response





Published: 19 October 2020