Some of the most vulnerable people have been left isolated and without proper access to solicitors because of the official response to the Covid-19 crisis, according to a report from the Law Society.
This threw a spotlight on the role of solicitors in preserving the safety of people cut off from normal social interactions, it said.
The research, Law under lockdown, found that people in care, prisons, detention, mental health centres and other institutionalised settings had been disproportionately impacted by some of the virus mitigation measures.
Technology to enable remote meetings was often inadequate, leaving them without proper help
The society said: “They have had very limited contact with their family or their solicitor for prolonged periods, removing an essential element of external scrutiny of conditions in institutions.”
In particular, the impact of the pandemic on the ability of adults and children detained in custody to access justice had been severely curtailed.
Legal advice for patients sectioned under the Mental Health Act was of “paramount importance” and a ban on visits to immigration removal centres had been prejudiced by a lack of available technology.
Also, the pandemic had caused a special danger for domestic abuse victims, whose situation was dire. Calls to the national domestic abuse helpline had increased by 66% and to the NSPCC by 32%. Nearly half of the solicitors surveyed had seen an increase in domestic abuse cases.
The report said it was “urgent that individuals at risk of domestic violence are able to access legal representation and are not left to navigate the legal system on their own”.
It pointed out that much had changed since the original Coronavirus Act 2020 was passed by Parliament five months ago. The justice system had completely changed and was reliant on remote court hearings, with the resulting delays leading to contact between lawyers and clients being much reduced.
Social distancing measures had created barriers between people and their representatives, a gulf that was compounded by the inadequate supply of technology for remote contact.
Rushing into emergency legislation without proper scrutiny had had a profound effect on vulnerable people. It was vital that temporary changes were “properly monitored and that the people affected can effectively challenge them to ensure their fundamental rights are protected”, the report said.
A six-month review of the law, coming up shortly, was an opportunity to review the necessity of the range of measures, to make sure they were proportional and correctly identified adverse impacts.
The report concluded: “The threat of further waves of this pandemic makes it essential that lessons are learned and put into practice so that responses to future emergencies may be improved.”
The society urged the government to adapt or remove measures in the Act not used, or used in a limited way, “or which had inadvertent adverse effects”.
There also needed to be investment in courts and technology, along with non-means tested legal aid for those most at risk.
Law Society president Simon Davis added: “Government must maintain access to legal advice and courts during emergencies, so citizens are able to challenge exceptional measures. But many have been unable to access legal advice, despite efforts to set up technology to replace prohibited visits in person.
“Many of the measures introduced by the act were forward-looking, anticipating strains on resources, but [our] analysis raises questions about their ongoing necessity and highlights concerns about adverse effects on the most vulnerable and on the rule of law.
“Some of the measures reduced obligations on the state to provide public services, in social care and for children, and removed safeguards protecting people’s rights to these, at the same time as avenues for redress were suspended.”