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Covid-19: Government Support for Law Firms

Volume 676: debated on Thursday 4 June 2020

4. Legal aid practitioners play a key role in access to justice. What consideration have the Government given to hard-pressed legal aid lawyers who, for example, need more flexibility with their billing or business rate relief to keep going, so that when cases reopen in courts, they can pick that up? (902944)

The hon. Lady asks an important question about support for law firms during the outbreak, and the CPS has made changes to its systems for paying fees to advocates to help support them during this difficult time. I joined a virtual meeting of the Bar Council, and the Bar is conscious of and content with the work that the Government have done—of course, there is always more that can be done—to relieve financial pressure. I see, and we are grateful for the fact, that the Inns of Court have been supporting junior barristers financially with ongoing funds. The Ministry of Justice is working closely with legal practitioners to understand the impact of covid-19, and streamlining the process for financial payments.

One of the biggest problems we have in bringing prosecutions against those who assault our emergency services is a lack of evidence. Could the Solicitor General set out what steps are being taken to make sure that the CPS has access to such evidence, including making sure that our emergency services have better access to body cameras?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question, and we will certainly take on board what he says. Body cameras are of course an increasingly used piece of evidence. This does, in effect, often add a workload burden on the court system because there is so much video evidence—so much more virtual evidence—now coming into play. However, the Crown Prosecution Service has seen a dramatic increase in its funding from Her Majesty’s Government, and we will be making sure that payment for members of the legal profession is expedited where we can do so.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed inequalities facing the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, and the legal sector has proved no exception: 55% of BAME barristers earn more than half of their income from legal aid, and 84% cannot survive a year without support. What urgent action will the Solicitor General take to reverse the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and to restore funds to legal aid?

We are supporting the legal aid system, as we always have done. The reality is that we are expediting outstanding fee schemes where payments need to be made more quickly than normal; we have reduced the stage lengths before payments are made in the cases that are ongoing; and we have concluded main hearings and ongoing cases and made payment before hearings have been concluded. A multiple series of measures is being made to assist everyone at the Bar and, in fact, in all branches of the legal profession, including payments of up-front fixed fees of £500 for covid-19 matters. Every measure is being taken to support the legal profession, but I accept that there are challenges, as there are in many professions during this crisis.

Order. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am now suspending the House for five minutes.

Sitting suspended.