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Published on January 6, 2021 by Holly Porter

Welcome to The Lawyer Portal Monthly News roundup for December 2020. This month, Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore has passed away, there has been a change in the legal aid rules, a legal battle has been launched against the government due to inaccessible Covid briefings, and just as a Covid vaccine reached the UK, Christmas plans were affected as a new highly transmissible Covid-19 variant was found.

Lord Kerr Passed Away

Lord Brian Kerr, an ‘energetic interrogator’ and an ‘ardent defender of individual human rights’ was the longest-serving justice on the UK Supreme Court, passed away at the beginning of this month.

Kerr has been described as ‘warm-hearted’, ‘humorous’ and the ‘conscience of the court’, largely due to his passion for correcting injustice.

‘Wealth rule’ dropped

Legal Aid is assessed by a complex means test. The prior calculations had failed to include some aspects of mortgage debt, making the applicants seem as though they had more disposable funds than actually existed.

The change was brought in via statutory instrument following a ruling last month, which stated that a survivor of domestic abuse with very few funds in the bank should not have been refused legal aid in a custody case. Often deemed the ‘imaginary capital rule’, it operated to ignore the mortgage debt on homes giving applicants ‘access’ to capital which did not exist.

David Greene, President of the Law Society of England and Wales, supports the move, telling the Guardian that the case showed “clear injustice” as no person should be expected “to sell their home…in order to access justice.”

Lack of COVID-19 Information Accessibility

Katie Rowley, who communicates primarily through British Sign Language (BSL), has decided to launch a legal battle after she broke lockdown restrictions as they were not presented in an accessible manner. She argues that not only is it important to present every piece of information in an accessible way at all times, but the importance of being able to protect yourself from Covid-19 should also be extended to all in a way they can understand.

The Independent reports that failing to interpret all the Covid briefings’ content may have excluded 80,000 BSL users from the information.

The government, who currently rely on the BBC for interpretation, responded to a petition in March arguing that following Public Health England guidance, they could not safely have an interpreter in the room for the briefings without putting them at risk. However, they go on to highlight that BSL Interpretation is available through the BBC News Channel and iPlayer and that they will “continue to work across government to ensure that information is fully accessible.”

 

COVID-19 Vaccine Roll Out

In December, Margaret Keenan, 91, became the first person in the UK and indeed the world to receive the Pfizer Covid-19 injection as part of the UK’s mass vaccination programme. It is expected that up to 800,000 doses of the available vaccines will be dispensed in the coming weeks, with half a million having already received their first dose at the time of writing.

The UK is the first country in the world to start using the Pfizer vaccine after regulators approved it for use last week.

 

New COVID-19 Variant

4 days before Christmas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that following a new strain of Covid-19 affecting large parts of South-East England, the risk of relaxing the Covid restrictions for the Christmas period was too dangerous. Placing large areas of the South into a new Tier 4, which does not allow for the mixing of any households and cutting the Christmas relaxation period from five days to one in the rest of England, the government have taken emergency action to curb the spread of this new more transmissible strain.

Moreover, there have been lorries backed up in Kent as France put in place a 48-hour border closure to prevent the new Covid-19 variant from reaching French shorelines. In addition, Spain, Germany, Italy, Ireland, and the Netherlands, amongst many other countries, have cancelled travel from the UK to protect their populations further.

Despite this, Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty has suggested that despite the worry over its transmissibility, there is no evidence to suggest that the new variant has a higher mortality rate and therefore, the existence of the vaccine should act as a beacon of hope during this ongoing pandemic.

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