The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has introduced economic help for legal aid firms, making hardship payments easier to access and pausing debt repayments to the Legal Aid Agency (LAA).
But the Bar Council said in response that it would do little for criminal defence barristers.
The move comes as the stand-off between criminal defence solicitors and the police over face-to-face interviews at police stations – given the social distancing rules – has been resolved with an agreed interim protocol.
The MoJ announcement recognised that the impact of the coronavirus on the courts has delayed the progress of cases and reduced new matters in some areas.
“This has impacted those that rely on government-funded legal aid and provide essential services in upholding access to justice.”
As a result, the MoJ has expanded the scope and relaxed the evidence requirements for hardship payments in Crown Court cases, including reducing the threshold for work done to £1,000, rather than the current £5,000.
It will also align legal aid fees for First-tier Tribunal immigration and asylum appeals with HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s move to an online system for these cases.
The MoJ said it has already halted the pursuit of outstanding debts owed to the LAA, and introduced measures to increase payments for virtual hearings in appeals before the Mental Health Tribunal, as well as remote advice in police custody, to ensure they are in line with in-person hearings
It has also encouraged law firms to use existing avenues of financial help, such as the ability to apply for early payment for work already done on a case.
Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland, said: “I want to express my sincere gratitude to the legal aid practitioners who have shown immense flexibility and determination throughout this outbreak.
“These measures are a clear indication of their important status both in times of crisis and beyond and the role they play in ensuring the justice system continues to function effectively.
“I will continue to work with the sector to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are provided with the representation and support they need through our legal aid system.”
The MoJ indicated that additional measures would be considered as the crisis develops.
Law Society president Simon Davis welcomed the move to allow practitioners to make payment claims earlier than they usually would.
“It still remains difficult to judge the scale of this crisis. Whether this response is adequate will depend, among other things, on how quickly the police and courts are able to find new ways of handling more routine work – and thus maintaining a volume of cases throughout this period.
“It will also depend to what extent, if and when some form of normality resumes, workload increases above their pre-crisis levels – enabling practitioners to recover lost income.
“This cannot be presumed. Even if so, it would require practitioners to incur significant additional costs long before they see such an increase.
“Thus there is significantly more that needs to be done to ensure the criminal defence sector is able to make it through this crisis.”
Mr Davis said it was also “vital” that the LAA processed claims as quickly as possible whilst avoiding technical objections.
Research published yesterday by the Bar Council indicated that two-thirds of barristers’ chambers specialising in criminal law would go out of business in the next six months under current conditions without financial support.
Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto QC said the measures announced would have “little impact” on criminal legal aid barristers.
With trials the trigger for most payments, and no new trials starting due to the crisis, few barristers will be able to claim any money as the regulations currently stand.
“The current rates of pay for criminal work mean that hardly any barristers will be eligible to claim £1,000 in fees owed by the LAA. In other words, the changes, albeit made in a spirit of helpfulness, will have no effect on the overwhelming majority of criminal barristers.”
Meanwhile, the custody interview protocol has been agreed between the Crown Prosecution Service, National Police Chiefs Council, Law Society, Criminal Law Solicitors Association and London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, in consultation with the Home Office.
The protocol sets out guidance on making the decision as to whether, when, and how to interview, while the video-link facilities available to police officers and interpreters should also be available to defence representatives.
It says telephone consultations with defence representatives should also be used whenever possible, but the protocol does not include any agreement as to the use of telephone for a formal suspect interview, because such links are not available under PACE for police officers and interpreters.