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.
Influencing achievements 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
We need to support firms, to make sure that they can stay open, continue to support employees, and keep the wheels of justice turning. We have been speaking to the government about ensuring its business support package is fit to address the issues affecting our members and the measures put in place are accessible and workable for them. We have written formally to the chancellor.
We have been pushing the Government and the Legal Aid Agency for urgent action to address cash flow problems legal aid firms are experiencing. Some steps have been taken, but we hope to see more. We know there is more to do to prevent some firms and business models from falling through the cracks of a rapidly developed scheme and anticipate further announcements. The details of what is available are on our website and we are working on a tool to help you understand what support is available.
We are holding continued dialogue with the SRA and other regulators to ensure that our members are supported to comply with the rules in this unprecedented period. We have been seeking practical solutions to compliance with rules which require physical presence, wet signatures or hard copy documents. We will let you know when we can say more about this. We know that many of our members are under particular pressure due to the need to renew professional indemnity insurance at this time. We will say more about this soon following discussions with the SRA.
Protecting our members’ health and safety
This issue has been raised by many members. It is never acceptable for members to experience less than hygienic conditions in their work in courts, prisons and police stations. Where we have had reports of such conditions, we have raised concerns with Ministry of Justice (MoJ), HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS), Prisons and Police. This has informed a number of government decisions this week, including the announcement to consolidate part of the court estate.
We have also reminded firms that they should not require their staff to attend the office unless they are key workers during this time.
Supporting future solicitors
The SRA listened to our concerns and developed proposals to ensure the majority of students can still sit their exams. It has also helped to clarify the situation for trainees. We know there will be anxiety from those trying to enter the profession about the impact on training contracts and from those already in training contracts about the impact of furlough. We are seeking more clarification on this.
Work in specific sectors
Members from specific sectors have raised many issues with us.
We heard from members the issues they were facing and worked with government and partners to publish industry-wide guidance to conveyancing firms advising clients on house moves during the Coronavirus crisis.
We have had conversations with the MoJ and SRA around the regulatory requirements for solicitors involved in the execution of wills and a discussion on best practice for members acting in this area. Following our discussion, the SRA have updated their guidance for solicitors who practice in this area, and the MoJ are reviewing options for possible further measures.
We responded to a request from the Department of Health and Social Care to provide input into forthcoming guidance on the Coronavirus Act 2020 relating to the temporary amendments of the Mental Health Act 1983 (not yet in force). We emphasised that should the provisions be brought into force, this should not be an invitation to depart from normal practice unless absolutely necessary – and then to be corrected as soon as possible afterwards.
We have worked with the CPS and the NPCC on a 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 Covid-19 pandemic.
We raised practical issues with the Home Office relating to the lack of recourse to public funds for people with leave to remain, and guidance that was published on extending leave due to Covid-19.
We got guidance last week from the LAA on allowing digital signatures. They have agreed to suspend audit and recoupment activity. They have acknowledged that failure because of the pandemic to meet contractual provisions such as keeping an office open to the public, and meeting certain hours requirements, will not be treated as matters attracting contract sanctions. There is guidance on current provisions allowing solicitors to act without evidence of means in exceptional circumstances, which would apply in the current situation. The LAA also highlighted existing underused measures to help cashflow.
Further, the LAA amended its rules so that solicitors can claim a full attendance fee in the police station where they attend an interview remotely.
We are holding daily telecons with the Ministry of Justice and other relevant stakeholders to discuss issues in the criminal justice system. Key issues are:
- Safety in the police stations
- Safety in courts
- Establishment of processes for progressing cases remotely
- Prioritisation of listing for cases, whether face to face or for remote hearings
- Re-establishing legal visits/videolinks for clients in custody
- Amending the legal aid system to adapt to remote working
- Legal aid cashflow and sustainability issues
We are also attending meetings every other day on family, civil and tribunals issues. The key issues we’re discussing are broadly similar (excluding the police station and prison issues), but with particular focus on:
Working with government
Our strong links with government departments and ministers mean that while we don’t have all of the answers to your questions and issues ourselves, we are working with or lobbying government departments, regulators and others to provide them. We will keep you updated through all of our channels as we get the clarity we are seeking.
Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland QC MP stated: “Can I say, the Law Society, I’m so grateful for the support that they’ve given us through this very testing time. They’ve shown that professionals are prepared to step up to the plate and help deliver justice in a calm and measured way.”
You can see our latest influencing work here. These pages will be regularly updated.
We have also published advice help and guidance for our members including:
A dedicated Covid 19 hub on our website here
- Dedicated e-mails to all of our members
- Gazette news coverage
- Social media updates
- Melinda Giles, a member of our Wills and Equity Committee, has written a blog on the issues that have arisen with wills with the current social distancing and isolation requirements.
We have been in the media this week to promote the role and value of the profession in difficult times
Ian Bond, chair of our wills and equity committee, was widely quoted in an article in the Sun about the challenges of putting your affairs in order amid the coronavirus pandemic. The article included some tips for overcoming the problem of witnessing wills and Law Society advice for minimising the risk of contagion. Melinda Giles, also on the wills and equity committee, meanwhile was quoted by CNBC and France-24. Our talks with government on executing wills were also in Evening Standard, Guardian, the FT (£), the Telegraph (£) and the Daily Mail.
The Independent reported that the coronavirus has caused chaos for the justice system – with a huge backlog of cases. Richard Atkinson, co-chair of our criminal law committee, said: “The capacity of the courts is physically limited – even if you man every court when this is over you’re still going to have an extended backlog, plus the new stuff coming through.”
Peter Rodd, Law Society council member, spoke to LBC’s Shelagh Fogarty show on Friday from 2.30pm, about conveyancing rights during the coronavirus crisis.
Legal Week and the Gazette cover our recent correspondence with the Bank of England where we asked it to clarify if law firms were eligible for the Covid Corporate Financing Facility, which helps struggling businesses with financial support.
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