It is irrefutable that the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the legal, economic, and social order of the world. While data from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) does show that the UK legal sector has remained fairly stable, there is more to the story. In today’s rapidly changing world, the legal sector is constantly having to find ways to overcome new challenges. For this reason, it is important to understand how legal services in England and Wales have been affected by the ongoing health crisis.
Disruptions to the Profession
The question of whether COVID-19 has impacted the legal profession has been the topic of much discussion. Recent sources have suggested that the legal sector in the UK has been somewhat stable throughout the global pandemic. While many areas of the law have greatly suffered, there has not actually been a significant amount of change: as noted in an article by Armstrong Watson, the SRA found that ‘the number of regulated firms fell by 1.9% between December 2019 and December 2020.’
One area of the law which has been significantly hindered by the outbreak of Covid-19 is Family Law. Slower court responses have escalated tensions within families.
- It has been taking longer to obtain court hearings, and the impact on house prices, pensions, and the stock market has made financial settlement more difficult. This has meant family work is being completed at a much slower rate. Armstrong Watson note that they ‘did not see the usual January bounce in family instructions this year, most probably because the effect of families being together is now much more widespread through the year rather than in holiday pockets,’ but that ‘there is the potential for family work to surge in the future, as the strain of spending weeks together, along with financial pressures, become too much.’
- Rights of Women wrote that some litigants have been struggling to participate in remote hearings in the Family Court during the pandemic, citing the following problems: not having good enough signal or internet access; being at home with children and not having a private space to participate in the hearing; not feeling confident with technology and struggling to switch between the hearing and virtual documents. This suggests that parties have been finding it hard to state their case adequately through a webcam. The outcomes of these hearings have huge implications on the participants’ lives and it is therefore imperative that they are able to express themselves just as well as they could in person.
Commercial and Corporate
Commercial and Corporate Law has been the second-worst hit, with many firms reporting a significant drop in obtaining new enquiries on matters. The main issues were that current transactions had not been completed and a lack of new instructions had jeopardised most work, creating a lot of uncertainty; it was not until Summer 2020 that transactional demand was at its peak. However, looking forward, there is still uncertainty due to the global recession and potential tax charges.
Difficulties in Working from Home (WFH)
- Both employers and employees will face issues with WFH. A notorious issue that will be seen across the board is the challenge of facing technical difficulties. Although this is a rather big issue as an internet connection is not always stable, employers are having success in paying expenses to employees with regards to their broadband. Expenses such as travel are becoming obsolete, and the expense of broadband can be significantly less than what travel costs incur in a month. It also has the benefit of allowing employees to work at their optimum performance, as they are not tired out by their commute.
- Coodes Solicitors employment specialist Philip Sayers writes that ‘businesses may not have had the time to carry out security checks and ensure the correct systems are in place to protect sensitive data.’ However, complying with GDPR is a very important check that must be ensured. Furthermore, to avoid a cyber-attack and reduce the risk of a data breach, employers should get advice from experts to ensure their system is secure.
A Double-Edged Sword: the impact on legal services
A number of areas in the legal sector, such as employment, housing, and welfare, have also seen a huge rise in cases. As the Government makes immense policy changes at a moment’s notice, it becomes unclear how these policy changes will affect everyday life.
Employment Law, in particular, has seen a large rise in cases. The word “furlough” will surely ring a bell for many of those told to stay at home to protect the NHS.
- The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme or CJRS, more commonly known as “furlough”, rolled out in March 2020 as a direct response to the forced closure of businesses throughout the country. As Gov.UK states, it worked by ‘providing grants to employers of up to a maximum 80% of salary to a maximum value of £2,500 per employee (until the end of August).’ Roughly 9.6 million employees were furloughed and almost 8,000 reports of furlough fraud have been reported.
- Since the beginning of the scheme, the rate of pay has changed every couple of months, with employees’ pay being split between the government (who cover the large majority of costs) and the employers. On the 1st of July 2020 we were entered into the “flexible furlough” scheme which differentiates itself from the prior scheme by the fact that furloughed staff are allowed to work part-time, with employers claiming a grant for their non-working hours.
With the end of the CJRS scheme in sight, on the 30th September 2021, we can expect an increase in demand for Employment Law services.
Property and Conveyancing
This area of law has reported a large growth in its workload, due to the fact that since the housing market re-opened there has been a temporary change in stamp duty. The reduced rates of stamp duty has meant that there is an increase in properties being bought. The rise in demand has meant that the recruitment market for conveyancers has significantly increased.
Although this is a fantastic opportunity for conveyancers, it does not come without any issues. Conveyancers are facing heavy pressure and according to the law society they are working late into the evening and at weekends to ensure transactions are progressing. A conveyancing update for the Law Society advises that ‘it’s key at this stage to take steps to manage your clients’ expectations in the lead up to 30 June.’ As it is key for client expectations to be managed and conveyancers are aware of this, they must also manage the many factors which could delay a transaction which are outside their control. The conveyancing update goes on to outline these factors, which include clients having issues obtaining mortgages and delays with lenders, therefore risking missing completion before the end of the decreased stamp duty period.
Litigation and Personal Injury
These areas of law have been mostly unaffected by the pandemic, apart from the general slowing-down which we have seen across the board. Litigation matters are taking a much longer response time, but this was due to the closure of courts. Personal Injury matters are also taking longer than usual, but this is mainly due to insurance companies slowing their response time down and adapting to working from home. Despite ongoing matters, there has been a general decrease in claims for injuries, and according to these reports, injuries themselves have decreased significantly.
- Restrictions placed on movement have meant that there are simply fewer people roaming the streets, which equates to fewer incidents. Fewer employees being physically present at workplaces reduces the scope of accidents for which employers are liable.
- Likewise, fewer people on the road has meant there have been even fewer RTA claims. According to Armstrong Watson’s article, ‘the Legal Services Board reports that the number of claims made through the Portal have been lower every month compared to the previous year since April 2020.’
- With the easing of lockdown over the last few weeks came an increase of 35% in motor incidents, as reported recently by Co-Op Insurance. The report states that ‘whilst overall the insurer is seeing less claims than it did compared to before lockdown, perhaps the reason for this sudden increase in motor collisions is the fact that many motorists are out of the habit of driving regularly due to lockdown.’ This is further evidenced by some serious incidents of speeding.
- To contrast the above points, a handful of companies have banned the use of remote medical examinations, due to concerns about fraud (this ban has since been lifted). It is very difficult for a medical professional to properly examine an injury over webcam, which in turn makes it difficult for them to give that injury full credibility. With the medical examiner less able to make a fair assessment of the damages incurred, the claimant’s word has to be relied upon.
Authors: Saif Jabbar, Henna Khatun, Anisa Kebbati
Photos by: Scott Graham @homajob
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