On 8 September 2021, the UK Law Societies’ Joint Brussels Office held a webinar discussing Covid-19 and the impact on the justice system. We were joined by The Law Societies of England and Wales’ President, Stephanie I. Boyce, Northern Ireland’s Senior Vice President, Suzanne Rice and Scotland’s President, Ken Dalling, together with representative of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE), Jiří Novák.
You can watch the full recording of the discussion here.
The positives and the negatives on the court system
The global pandemic has resulted in national lockdowns across the UK and beyond. As a result, court procedures and, generally, the work of lawyers had to adapt overnight. An immediate ripple effect of this lockdown was the delay caused to court proceedings as we all established remote means of working.
The risk to access to justice arises in many ways as a result. For instance, Suzanne Rice provided insight into her experience as a practising family lawyer. Remote hearings have brought increased efficiency to certain hearings, removing the need to commute to Court and back which can eat heavily into the working day. However, it was noted by the speakers that this remote hearing cannot replace in-person. Examination of witnesses, assessing witness creditability, persuading a jury as to your case and ensuring the client understands the impact of proceedings all risk being made more difficult remotely. Issues with technology and connections further risk access to justice.
In addition, there is a real risk of some groups in society being marginalised. Those with limited technical know-how, no or limited access to devices and those with disabilities preventing or making harder the use of these technologies are at real risk being disadvantaged. Stephanie I. Boyce concluded here that digital inequality must be addressed to ensure access to justice is not denied for these groups.
To ensure against these risks, the speakers emphasised a need for joined up thinking on formulating guidance on what cases are and are not suitable for remote hearings. As lawyers, the client’s best interests are our focus, meaning that we must ensure against any risk of a disconnect caused by remote. In person and remote should be used in tandem with efficiency and appropriateness centre stage.
Discussing the positives of the pandemic, Suzanne and Ken Dalling agreed that certain relaxations of rules for court proceedings supported the provision of access to justice. This resulted in quicker access to protection orders in family law proceedings and the ability to sign affidavits and oaths remotely to aid efficiency. The panel ultimately agreed that the pandemic forced the profession to make technological advances with speed and urgency, cautioning that access to justice must remain a focal point in this progression.
Covid-19 and the profession
As we move out of lockdowns and transition to a new normal, we begin to query whether these impacts on the legal profession will remain.
In the law firm, the panel discussed the danger of some firms pre-empting trends and selling off physical offices when the trend of returning to the office is ever increasing at present. Ultimately, for junior lawyers and trainee solicitors, supervision and engagement in person brings value to skills development, training and learning by osmosis during time in the office. A new hybrid way of working should be welcomed. CCBE representative Jiří Novák stated that confidentiality of information must be protected when we are working from home.
As the profession moves forward, Ken warned of the situation as to the low levels of legal aid currently available, providing an example of Scottish criminal law. This must be monitored for risk of underfunding making the criminal law practice area, and others, less appealing to young talent and risking low retention rates of talent. Access to justice could be impeded if not.
Overall, the panel agreed that refinement to guidance on this new way of working is crucial to protect access to justice. Coherent guidance notes on areas like Court proceedings to ensure access to justice, digital equality and protecting client best interests would prove highly valuable.