Committee urges UK Ministry of Justice to boost support to legal service providers

Small high street firms, law centres and new barristers in particular are taking a hit

Committee urges UK Ministry of Justice to boost support to legal service providers

The House of Commons Justice Select Committee in the UK has urged the Ministry of Justice to boost support to legal service providers, according to the Law Society Gazette.

MPs in the committee warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could kill off some legal service providers, as per an examination of the effect of the pandemic from 16 March to 30 June. The committee’s report highlighted small high street firms, law centres and not-for-profit agencies and new barristers as being at risk.

“Let’s be honest about this. I know some people won’t have a lot of sympathy for lawyers who dress up in fancy gowns and speak a language of their own,” said committee chair Sir Bob Neill. “People are under the misapprehension they are all on comfortable incomes. Some are, but very many, especially given their recent big drop in workload, are not.”

The committee said that legal aid providers had been “under stress” even before COVID-19 hit, and government funding could not “compensate for the significant drop-off in the amount of work being done and remove the risk of a collapse in legal services providers.”

While the furlough scheme implemented by the government helped limit staffing expenses, the loans scheme failed to provide support. Moreover, the self-employed income support scheme was unable to aid new barristers as it was closed to those who did not submit a 2018-2019 tax return. Those with profits that exceeded the £50,000 threshold also could not partake of the scheme.

Thus, the committee has urged the Ministry of Justice to consider other measures to maintain access to justice, such as adopting the monthly payment proposals by the Law Society of England and Wales, providing grants to law centres and not-for-profit agencies and offering assistance for self-employed lawyers earning more than £50,000.

Without additional support, Neill said that “the next time a victim of a crime or a defendant—both of whom may be on modest incomes—has a brush with the legal system, they may find they have no access to real justice.”

Law Society President Simon Davis supported the committee’s call for more government assistance for the “beleaguered” legal aid community. He said that “young practitioners and those from BAME backgrounds” generally worked in “publicly funded areas of law”—therefore, they were more strongly impacted by the pandemic.

“In these challenging times, it is vital that the wheels of justice continue to turn. The government must heed the select committee and our calls on supporting legal aid firms through the crisis,” Davis said. “To preserve access to justice and the rule of law, the government must also commit to uprating legal aid fees and updating the legal aid means test. Without action, more and more members of the public will find themselves priced out of justice and unable to enforce their rights.”

Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland said that he had been collaborating with both the Treasury and with internal bodies “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.”

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