The end of the coronavirus pandemic will be followed by a “massive increase” in demand for legal services, the president of the Law Society has predicted.
But Simon Davis warned that the legal system could not handle the amount of problems that have built up during lockdown. “Will it cope? I don’t think it will.”
Speaking at an online session of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, hosted by co-chair Lord Hunt, Mr Davis said a lot of people with legal problems were “very nervous” about taking action.
He said they were reluctant to go into solicitors’ offices during the pandemic, “particularly if they have to use public transport”.
Mr Davis referred to the amount of housing possession cases that have built up since they were stayed in April, the domestic abuse that has taken place and increased demand in general for family law services.
Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, agreed that the pandemic would have an “enormous impact” on the demand for legal services, both because of the backlog of existing cases and new kinds of cases “coming out of the pandemic”.
She went on: “There is a real concern that because of the decimation of work for the profession at the moment and the lack of support from government, there will be a real reduction in the availability of legal services.
“It’s a really worrying picture for the future.”
Ms Pinto said the “real positive” from the pandemic was the way the justice system has been able to keep going using virtual platforms, which had boosted its position on the international stage.
However, she called for an “impact assessment” in every area of law to determine where remote justice had been a success and where it was “not appropriate”.
She said remote justice could exclude disadvantaged people, and the fact that someone with special needs could use a computer did not mean that it was right to take their case forward in that way.
Mr Davis said that instead of decision makers starting from “the assumption that everyone can use” digital methods, they should start from the assumption that “everyone can’t”.
He said data and technology should be “the servants and not the masters” and were “not what people came to court for”.
Remote hearings were suitable for preliminary hearings and case management, but not for contentious evidence and people – or, as he put it, for “case management, not people management”.
Mr Davis said members of the public did not expect issues involving their livelihood or family to be decided on the internet.
Asked what “one thing” the government could do to improve the justice system, Ms Pinto called for “robust and sustainable” investment to enable people to exercise their rights.
Mr Davis said that, along with investment, the government should “change its attitude”, so that rather than “tinkering with bits of the system”, it focused on where problems started.
He said early legal advice in areas such as social security, immigration, housing and family could reduce the burden on the courts and the taxpayer.
Ms Pinto questioned why the government’s package of pay rises for many public sector workers announced yesterday, including 2% for judges, did not include legal aid lawyers.
She said fee income had fallen by 60% for barristers during the pandemic, and by 70% for publicly funded barristers.