Every single person reading this blog post has been touched in one way or the other by the Coronavirus. Its disruption will continue to be felt long after we have beaten it. Right now, we must first focus on taking care of ourselves and each other by staying indoors whenever possible. And second, we must focus on the people that need us – users of legal services.
Many individuals during this crisis will, sadly, need to turn to the law for protection, or for access to justice: they will be anxious about their employment and housing rights, families under pressure will want to know what their legal rights are and how to enforce them, and saddest of all there is already huge pressure on those seeking (and providing) will services. Yet many of the mechanisms for securing access to justice have been curtailed. Most courts have been shut, and the judiciary are struggling with the inevitable tension between two sets of fundamental human rights: the right to open justice (Article 6 of the ECHR) and the absolute requirements to safeguard life, health and physical integrity (Articles 2 3 and 8). There are some encouraging signs that the judiciary, court administrators and legal service providers in general are taking unprecedented steps to up their game in their use of new technology to resolve this tension, for example by holding hearings over video link even where multiple parties from different countries are involved.
It is critical that imaginative and constructive thinking is also devoted, during this crisis, to those least able to afford or to press for innovative solutions to their legal problems. Technology will no doubt be at the heart of most of these solutions, though this will not solve all the funding gaps for those with limited resources.
This could be described as the worst of times, but it is also potentially a transformative time. Let us hope that in the (hopefully not too distant) future when we emerge from isolation, we come together and learn lessons from what we have managed to keep going and how we have done it, both in the ways in which we provide legal services to all types of users, and how the regulatory framework can better support them.