By David Sixsmith, Senior Lecturer in Law
One of the many new terms we are currently getting used to in the post-lockdown world is that of a ‘key worker’. The public have, quite rightly, lavished praise on those who have now been recognised as fundamental to society’s continued operation, including NHS workers, teachers, delivery drivers, public transport operators and, of course, lawyers. The societal significance of this is far bigger than it is possible to commit to paper in such a short piece as this, but the lockdown has revealed in stark terms the workers and professions that are necessary to keep the country running.
Part of the reason that students are attracted to study the law as a discipline in the first place is because of its impact on our everyday conduct, our personal freedoms and our way of life. Whether it is the simple purchase of a chocolate bar, the speed we drive down the road, or the police’s powers of enforcement, we look to the law to ensure that we, as citizens, are adequately protected, and citizens look to lawyers to ensure that they know their rights and are best represented if something goes wrong. However, the current pandemic presents a previously overlooked reason to study law and use that knowledge and those skills to become a solicitor, barrister, academic, judge or politician; it is necessary.
In these times when it feels to many like the country is on pause, it is important to remember that the wheels of the legal system are still turning, and indeed that they need to keep turning. Legal representatives are performing so many key roles across the country; Courts and Tribunals are now operating remotely with solicitors and barristers making representations to judges via video link, duty solicitors are continuing to attend and represent citizens at the police station, private client solicitors are remotely drafting wills for concerned clients keen to get their affairs in order and advice and representation is still being given to safeguard children and vulnerable adults and in matters of public safety. Part of their role is about reassurance and compassion; the other part is acting to ensure the protection of legal rights.
"Legal representatives are performing so many key roles across the country; Courts and Tribunals are now operating remotely with solicitors and barristers making representations to judges via video link, duty solicitors are continuing to attend and represent citizens at the police station, private client solicitors are remotely drafting wills for concerned clients keen to get their affairs in order and advice and representation is still being given to safeguard children and vulnerable adults and in matters of public safety."
Senior Lecturer in Law
On a wider level, the Coronavirus Act 2020 is a hugely significant piece of legislation which confers unprecedented powers on government to restrict and regulate movement and conduct and, where necessary, to enforce those provisions. It evidences the huge power the law can have over our lives and, whilst temporary in nature, it shows why it is so very necessary for legal mechanisms to exist to ensure that such powers are used for public good (as they are here) rather than for ulterior and more sinister motives. It does not just stop there. Privacy lawyers and academics will shortly be spending a huge amount of time investigating, testing and challenging the levels of data collected by the widely expected coronavirus track and trace app, as well as where that data is distributed and what it is used for. This is to ensure that the balance is appropriately struck between protection of public health and our fundamental right to a private life. Employment lawyers are poring over the government’s furlough scheme and its relationship to employees’ contracts of employment and family lawyers are publishing guidance and providing advice on legal mechanisms available to protect vulnerable citizens from domestic abuse. On the political stage, Kier Starmer has been widely praised for his forensic, balanced and measured approach to his first Prime Minister’s Questions session in Parliament. He trained and practiced as a barrister specialising in human rights; the early signs are that this will stand him in considerably good stead in holding the current government’s conduct to account in his role as leader of the opposition.
And that brings us back to the role of the law and those who work in the legal sector, whatever area that may be. It is key and it is fundamental and it will continue to be so. Whatever happens in a future laced with uncertainties, legal scholars can be assured of the significance of the role that they can play in ensuring that society’s fabric remains sewn together as the world begins its recovery from what, we hope, will eventually be a period of time consigned to the history books.
David Sixsmith joined the University of Sunderland in August 2016 as lecturer and supervising solicitor in the Sunderland Student Law Clinic, our live pro-bono service in which students handle their own caseload under the supervision of qualified solicitors. He is also Programme Leader for LLM Legal Practice (LPC) and teaches at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Read David's academic profile and more about his research interests.
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Published: 28 April 2020