The last week has seen a rapid escalation of the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK. With this escalation, people in the UK have come to realise the very real effect it will have on everyone in this country. On 16 March 2020, Boris Johnson updated the government guidance, advising everyone who can to work from home, to avoid pubs, clubs, and other social settings, and for the over 70s and other vulnerable groups to self-isolate.
This latest advice and any future measures will clearly affect the British legal system and the daily lives of lawyers. In this article, The Student Lawyer takes a quick look at how different parts of the UK legal system are being affected.
Many large law firms, including all the Magic Circle firms, have advised their lawyers and staff to work from home. International law firms are used to having lawyers working remotely as they travel around the world and so are likely to have the technology in place (e.g., remote access to documents, video-conferencing etc.) to facilitate such a switch in working habits. There will be some aspects of their practice that require a physical presence, such as printing and preparation of court bundles, but they will be hoping that such work can be kept to a minimum in order to ensure the safety of support staff.
The switch to remote working may not be so seamless for smaller law firms who may not already have the infrastructure in place. However, the exceptional circumstances could force many into investing in the necessary technology to allow their lawyers and staff to work safely.
The situation is also likely to be more difficult for barristers who are generally self-employed and so may not have access to safety nets such as statutory sick pay if they need to self-isolate.
Although positives have been hard to find in the context of the pandemic, it could have a positive effect on lawyers’ working habits, long after the crisis has been solved. Although, as noted above, most large law firms will have facilities in place to allow remote working, they may be unwilling to allow their lawyers to work from home in “normal” circumstances. However, if firms are able to make the switch to universal remote working with minimal disruption, it will make it harder to argue when things return to normal that lawyers and staff with compelling reasons to work from home (e.g., those with young children or other care commitments) should not be permitted to do so. Even for lawyers who would prefer to work from their office, the temporary change in working conditions may change their long-term habits by, for example, highlighting how multiple in-person meetings can be inefficient or by encouraging them to print fewer documents that can be accessed just as easily from their computers.
As for the law firms’ businesses, uncertainty of any kind can be good or bad for business, depending on what type of law you practice. In the last month, the global economy has been decimated with a speed not seen since the 2008 financial crash. At this early stage, it remains to be seen whether the crisis will trigger a global recession. Unlike the 2008 crash, which was caused by systemic issues within the economy, governments around the world will be hoping that when the pandemic passes its peak, markets will return to normal more quickly, although many businesses may require help from the state to get back on their feet. However long it lasts, economic uncertainty is generally bad news for corporate lawyers, as companies will postpone deals and investments. Conversely, the chaos can create opportunities for disputes lawyers, as contracts around the world are breached by businesses no longer able to meet their commitments. In short, a global recession is not a positive outcome for anyone, but law firms are better placed to weather recessions than other businesses.
Although courts around Europe are shutting, including the European Court of Human Rights, the English courts remain open for business. The annual ceremony celebrating the appointment of QCs went ahead as normal on Monday.
The government will of course be reluctant to close the courts completely – closing the civil courts could have disastrous commercial consequences and closing the criminal courts could have more personal repercussions. However, as the rest of the country adapts to remote working, the courts will be looking to see whether they could continue to process their most urgent cases remotely.
There is some precedent for this in both civil and criminal cases. Courts do have video-conferencing facilities to allow witnesses who are abroad or who may be vulnerable to be examined remotely. Although the courts require lawyers to be in court for trials and other major hearings, it is not uncommon for procedural and other ancillary proceedings to be conducted over the telephone or video-conferencing software. They can also take lessons from international arbitration, where the parties, their lawyers, and the tribunal can often be based in different countries and remote hearings are even more common.
Whether a full trial could be conducted remotely, especially a criminal trial requiring a jury, remains to be seen. Indeed, the Scottish courts announced today that no new jury trials should be started until further notice. However, the crisis is likely to provide the courts with funding and impetus to update their facilities to better accommodate remote access to justice, another rare positive to be taken from the pandemic.
Parliament remains open at this stage. As with the closure of the courts, closing Parliament would have profound repercussions, especially as the government is in the process of passing emergency legislation to deal with the outbreak. This includes legislation to close down mass gatherings if necessary and to release cash injections from the Treasury to help struggling people and businesses. However, the Houses of Parliament have been closed to the public and Boris Johnson has made clear that the advice for over 70s to self-isolate extends to MPs (which would current leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn who is 70).
Brexit, which has occupied so many column inches over the last three years, has been all but forgotten in the last two weeks. Although Boris Johnson had previously stated that the UK would never extend the current transitional period beyond its current expiry date of the end of 2020, this red line will surely have to be reconsidered in light of the circumstances.
Elsewhere, local elections, including the London mayoral elections, have been postponed, although the Labour leadership elections, which do not require mass gatherings, are pressing ahead.
As law firms around the country scramble to make the switch to remote working, this is likely to have a temporary effect on legal recruitment with interviews and assessment centres being postponed while firms work out how best to conduct them remotely. TSL urges you not to panic if your interview has been postponed – as noted above, although the legal industry will be effected by this crisis, it will fare better than other industries and law firms will still need to ensure they are recruiting new talent for when things return to normal. We do not expect this crisis to have a huge long-term effect term effect on legal recruitment.
For now though, stay safe, stay at home if you can, and, if you are young and healthy, think about how you might be able to help those in your area who are more vulnerable than you.