While the most significant impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the catastrophic loss of life, the disease has also dramatically impacted the legal industry. There’s been disruption and uncertainty following countless court closures, which has potentially led to many people unable to access the justice they deserve. As well as this, accelerated cost-saving measures in chambers, interruption to workflow, and loss of overall income has meant that many barristers may have made the decision to stop practising – potentially leaving our profession with a massive skills gap.
Child abuse has risen during the pandemic
This is particularly problematic given recent reports – including a recent study by specialist lawyers Bolt Burdon Kemp – that crimes such as child abuse and domestic abuse have risen during the pandemic. In the case of child abuse, the law firm collated information across charities and law enforcement organisations and found that all reports noted child abuse has risen sharply during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.
In one survey, a whopping 92% of police officers across the world who deal with cases of child abuse reported seeing an increase in child abuse cases. The survey included 470 law enforcement officers and organisations across 37 countries (including the US, UK and Sweden), and was carried out by security company NetClean. It also found that 68% of law enforcement officers and organisations reported an increase in online child sexual abuse crime, and 11% noted an increase in offline child sexual abuse crime. A shocking 79% also reported an increase in attempts by perpetrators to contact children.
Covid-19 has the potential for wide-ranging future consequences
Worryingly, the same survey also saw 52% of police and law enforcement officials warning that they believe the pandemic will have far-reaching consequences when it comes to child sexual abuse crime. 64% also stated that Covid-19 risks crimes against children not being investigated. They posit that school closures have meant children aren’t able to report what’s happened to them to teachers and other school staff, while mandatory reporters that children rely on may not be made aware of the crimes in order to be able to report them.
Unfortunately, a similar situation in chambers and the court system means there may not be enough barristers to help prosecute criminals when they’re eventually reported and apprehended. The Bar Standards Board report found that the number of barristers in England and Wales dropped for the first time in 5 years during the pandemic. The report cited a decline in the number of pupillages1 as a key reason – fuelled by pandemic-related court closures reducing the need for staff. Without enough barristers to support the people who need us to advocate for them, there’s a chance many cases will linger in the annals of the justice system.
Rates of reporting child abuse have increased over the past 5 years
All this is happening against a wider backdrop of child abuse cases rising over the years. According to the Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) March 2016 and March 20192 Crime Surveys of England and Wales (CSEW), rates of reporting have increased for child abuse related crimes.
In 2019, 7.5% of adults reported experiencing sexual abuse in childhood (compared to 6.6% in 2016). It’s a similar case for psychological abuse (9.3% in 2019 versus 8.9% in 2016), physical abuse (7.6% in 2019 versus 6.8% in 2016), and having witnessed domestic violence (9.8% in 2019 versus 7.9% in 2016). While increased rates of reporting is a positive sign, the ONS concludes that this is still an indication that more children are being abused than ever before. We need to ensure the systems are in place to support both adults and children who come forward about being abused.
How we can make a difference
It’s so important that, while the Covid-19 pandemic may have potentially caused a profound step back in the justice system, we continue to advocate for the innocent lives that have been affected. As barristers, our role is to ensure our clients receive the support they need and the outcomes they deserve – but we don’t operate in a vacuum. We need to keep ourselves informed of the wider situation – however dire it may be. By doing so, we’ll be in a better position to truly support our clients and continue to make sure their voices are heard long after the pandemic is declared over.
Hasna Haidar is a freelance copywriter and researcher, covering topics around the legal industry, the civil and criminal courts in the UK, and equality in the law