By Ella Sides and Kirsty Fallon, Sheffield Hallam Law Students
COVID-19 has led to a fundamental change in how people accessed justice and legal aid. Such an unprecedented circumstance has led to issues with a backlog of cases, issues with remote hearings and a multitude of new measures to implement and contend with.
A backlog of cases is a dire situation for those who are awaiting legal justice. A person who has been remanded in prison will face a longer wait for their case to be heard, such people may carry an innocent charge, yet the backlog prolongs their prison stay. On top of this, a victim will be left without compensation or corrective justice for a longer than usual period of time. Arguably, the pandemic has unfortunately left those who are the victims, without a satisfactory result. The backlog of cases will also make it much harder for those who need to talk to a solicitor to access one. Solicitors will be heavily busy with dealing with an already hefty workload, to the point they are unable to take on further cases. People may simply give up trying to access legal justice, and they will not receive the justice they perhaps deserve. Further funding would help the most vulnerable have fair access to justice.
The pandemic has resulted in many legal administrators forced to work from home, consequently meaning those receiving justice will not be met with the resources and support available pre-covid. Further, many may not have access to a device with a supporting internet connection, or appropriate means for communication. Lacking such a device has resulted in the more vulnerable members of society missing out on attendance from remote hearings. Evidently, they could not attend court in person, a facility which will have been relied on heavily by the vulnerable members. It is seen that COVID-19 has prevented vulnerable members of society from obtaining a fair and just case, with them missing out on having their wrongdoing put right.
Many members of the public rely on free clinics offered by some firms, to get legal advice. The pandemic resulted in firms forced closure, making it hard for free legal aid to be accessed and provided. Thus, the poorer members of societies cases will be brushed aside, meaning justice will be unserved. It can be said that prisoners will not receive the same access to their solicitor, with the main method for communication being remote, due to social distancing and COVID preventative measures, they are likely not going to be granted the time and support resources they would benefit from, from an in-person session.
To some, a virtual hearing is improper, and their service of justice will not reach the same standard if it were to be held in a regular, in person court. Believing the justice to be improper, people will perhaps appeal the result of the case, leading to an even bigger backlog of cases, should they follow through with their appeal.
People will perhaps be on their own when they are attending a visual court hearing. In an already worrying time, people may be more anxious at attending an online court hearing, alone from their house. Whilst in court normally, they will be in the presence of their solicitor and feel their personal support. It is a much more detached experience for a client if they have to go through the hearing alone. Consequently, they will not perform to their best possible standard, which may result in the hearing not going in their favour.
The constant changing of COVID-19 rules have left confusion in terms of access to justice. Uncertainties developed as to what people could and could not do during the pandemic. Solicitors will be dealing with these smaller COVID-19 cases, when a bigger case for justice will have been turned away, due to the sheer amount of work the solicitor is already facing.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event which has led to a huge change for how people access legal advice and justice, and how solicitors provide said support and advice. The pandemic has made it much more difficult for people to access and receive justice. With the effects that pandemic has inflicted, it may take time for people to access legal justice for some time as the backlog of cases are worked through.
Of course most law firms including SHU Law have tried to continue to operate as normal throughout the pandemic aware that they serve people at their most vulnerable times and we will continue to do what we can to support those awaiting their opportunity for access to justice.