Your weekly Law Society update
During the pandemic I will use this weekly update to keep you informed of our latest influencing work as we represent the interests of the profession and the public during these difficult times. I will also let you know about the latest support advice and guidance we have for our members.
Updates this week
You may have seen our all member e-mail last week, updating members on the ways we are tackling the issues they are facing and signposting our health and well-being resources too.
We have surveyed sections of our membership including large firms and small firms to ensure we are tackling the issues most critical to them as the pandemic continues. This input is driving our infuencing and support priorities. We will say more about the findings in the coming weeks. Our In-house survey goes out this week.
This is a very fast moving situation, but during the last week, our work, based on priorities raised by our members has focused on:
Keeping business afloat
In Professional Update and on social media today we have today launched our coronavirus (COVID-19) business continuity toolkit
We’ve produced this toolkit that law firms and practitioners could and should consider when looking at how to strengthen their business in these challenging times. It includes:
- top tips for firms to preserve their cashflow
- an online tool to determine your and your firm’s eligibility for government support measures
- video-insight from managing partners and senior leaders on how to weather the storm
Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CLBILS)
We are pleased to announce that a new scheme has been announced to bolster support for large firms not currently eligible for loans. The new Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CLBILS) will ensure that more firms are able to benefit from government-backed support. It will provide a government guarantee of 80% to enable banks to make loans of up to £25 million to firms with an annual turnover of between £45 million and £500 million. Loans backed by a guarantee under CLBILS will be offered at commercial rates of interest and further details of the scheme will be announced later this month.
We have had significant engagement with BEIS and other government departments on the lack of funding measures for those firms that fall between the original Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (up to £45m turnover) and those that qualify for the Bank of England’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility (aimed at medium and large corporates), and are pleased that a new scheme has been made available.
Wet signatures and virtual execution of documents
This has been an issue flagged by firms of all sizes and we have raised it with the Ministry of Justice, BEIS, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Land Registry. The SRA has confirmed that, from a regulatory perspective, enhanced record keeping would ensure continuing compliance with its principles (examples include file notes demonstrating that the client had been informed of adapted processes, and that they had consented). We are still in discussions with the Ministry of Justice on the virtual execution of oaths. They are aware that this is a high priority issue for our members, and are looking at the existing legislation and accompanying rules (e.g. the Civil Procedure Rules) to see changes can be made.
In terms of real estate-specific measures, the City of London Law Society has published the minutes of its extraordinary meeting on the 27 March, which includes some useful advice on the Land Registry’s approach. We will be writing a joint letter with the City of London Law Society to the Land Registry, asking them to relax their registration requirements to accept incomplete applications and extend priority periods during the pandemic.
The SRA has published further guidance on its coronavirus webpage https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/news/coronavirus-update/. Whilst the SRA have said that solicitors and firms are still expected to meet the required standards, and to have appropriate contingency plans in place, they make clear that they will be taking a pragmatic and proportionate approach to enforcement given exceptional circumstances
Trainees and supervision
The Law Society has had a great many enquiries from those seeking to enter the profession, about arrangements for trainees, supervision requirements and furloughing.
Last week the SRA published their FAQs on education and training within their advice on the coronavirus: https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/news/coronavirus-questions-answers/
The SRA have stated that firms can make their own arrangements regarding supervision and see it as perfectly reasonable to supervise remotely.
We have addressed the issues around the training contract in our advice here: https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/support-services/advice/articles/coronavirus-advice-and-updates/. It is critical to maintain open lines of communication between firms and trainees to ensure that everyone knows where they stand and can behave accordingly.
We are continuing to engage with the SRA on issues affecting those seeking to enter the profession and those firms offering or engaged in training contracts and the employment of newly qualified solicitors. If you have any further qualification issues that have arisen as a result of the current circumstances, please get in touch and we will see how these can be taken forward.
In December 2019 the OLC consulted on its Corporate Strategy 2020-23. The Strategy proposed a substantial increase (20%) to the Legal Ombudsman’s (LeO) current budget. The Law Society strenuously opposed this increase in our response earlier in the year. The Law Society’s opposition was echoed by the Bar Council and the LSB who also shared ‘significant concerns’ about LeO’s performance, staff retention rates and lack of clarity. In light of these concerns, we welcome the OLC decision to now withdraw its proposed budget increase in favour of an inflation-only increase. I called Elizabeth Davies, newly appointed Chair, to welcome her, offer the Law Society’s support and arrange a meeting to discuss our concerns in more detail.
Work in specific sectors
Firms have been concerned that the Bankruptcy Court would close its telephone line those undertaking pre-completion searches in respect of financial transactions. We followed this up with the Ministry of Justice, which has confirmed there are no plans to close the court.
Intellectual Property Office (IPO) closure
The IPO has closed its office, and has issued an update regarding its revised processes. This includes a definition of “interrupted days” and consequences for those applications. They are currently unable to process any paper forms, and no documents can be filed by hand at their offices. However, they are accepting electronic signatures on forms and other documents.
We have updated our guidance for members in relation to wills to include the updated SRA guidance and to say we are having continuing conversations with the MoJ.
We also received clarification from the Crown Prosecution Service on how prosecution of offences in the public interest under the Coronavirus Regulations 2020 will be approached with regard to people who may have impaired decision-making capacity.
We also responded to the Tribunal Procedure Committee’s consultation on Mental Health Tribunal reforms.
The LAA published guidance on 3 April relaxing the rules for hardship payments to be made, and encouraging firms to ensure they are making full use of the existing facilities for claiming on account. We have emphasised, and the MoJ has acknowledged, that there needs to be a continuing conversation about the serious financial challenges facing firms.
Further guidance on the same day clarified that where a solicitor attends a police interview remotely, they can claim the full case fee.
The LAA also clarified the circumstances in which it will be acceptable in the current circumstances to grant legal aid without documentary evidence of means.
A new Practice Direction under the Civil Procedure Rules seeks to address the issue of extensions of time.
Practice Direction 51ZA, effective from 2 April 2020, makes provision for parties to agree extensions of time to comply with procedural time limits in the Civil Procedure Rules, Practice Directions and court orders. Parties can agree an extension up to 56 days without formally notifying the court (rather than the previous 28 days) so long as that does not put a hearing date at risk. Any extension of more than 56 days needs to be agreed by the court.
It provides guidance to the court when considering applications for extensions of time and adjournments.
This Practice Direction ceases to have effect on 30 October 2020.
See the civil procedure rules on Justice.gov.uk
Keeping members safe
Interviewing of suspects in the police station
We have worked with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) on a coronavirus (COVID-19) interview protocol.
This guidance is intended to assist investigators and prosecutors in deciding whether suspects should be interviewed as part of a police investigation during the coronavirus pandemic.
It will be reviewed monthly from 1 April 2020 and is intended for use only during the coronavirus crisis.
We have been in the media this week to promote the role and value of the profession in difficult times
An FT article on the property market 'moving into cold storage' cites our guidance on conveyancing during the Covid crisis.
Gary Rycroft, chair of our digital assets committee, is quoted in Elle in an article on cancelled weddings. He was also on BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme (starts from 16:18) about making a will during the coronavirus lock down.
BBC News looks at calls for greater flexibility in the will-signing process amidst social distancing measures and rising demand– citing recommendations from the chair of our wills and equity committee, Ian Bond.
The Guardian reported on how the coronavirus outbreak is affecting the way law students are being taught. Alan East, chair of our education and training committee said: “I think this period of being confined to our houses and having to do things online will move things along a bit. Law has begun to modernise.”
The Daily Mail, Gazette and 94 others cite figures from Refuge, the national domestic abuse helpline, of a dramatic increase in the numbers of women seeking help during the coronavirus outbreak.
I said that “making non-means-tested legal aid available for domestic abuse cases would give victims the legal support and access to justice they so desperately need.”
The Gazette, Legal Futures, New Law Journal and the Guardian all report on the MoJ’s support package for legal aid practitioners. I said: “The MoJ must keep its door open and respond urgently to any further feedback from the profession about the measures needed to enable practices to survive.”
Please feel free to share this information with your members. Please stress that we have ongoing engagement with regulators and government and that these are fast moving issues. Encourage them to check our website and social media for the latest updates.
The Law Society, 113 Chancery Lane, London. WC2A 1P