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Blueprint for law firms and solicitors facing local lockdowns
On Thursday 5 November, England will enter a national lockdown which will last until at least Wednesday 2 December.
To find out about the restrictions that cover this period, read our national lockdown guidance.
When England emerges from the national lockdown in December 2020, it’s expected that local areas will be placed back into appropriate restrictions based on their local area.
This guidance is intended to:
- help solicitors and law firms navigate the tiered local alert systems and other area-specific lockdowns when they are reinstated
- signpost resources which can be of use in these uncertain times
Changes to local arrangements are likely to happen at short notice so it’s advisable to prepare.
There are differences in government advice between England and Wales, and there may be differences between different areas in England under the same tier.
The three-tier local lockdown system in England
In October 2020, the UK government announced a new three-tiered local lockdown structure for England, based on local authority areas. These local COVID alert levels will apply across the whole of England when the national lockdown concludes in December 2020.
The restrictions in the new tiers are largely related to social interactions, but throughout all tiers the government’s advice to work from home if you can still applies.
You can leave your house in any tier to attend court or meet a legal commitment, but consideration should be given to whether it's possible to conduct this business in another way.
The three tiers are:
- Tier 1 (Medium) – this includes the previous existing national measures including the rule of six and the 10pm curfew
- Tier 2 (High) – this reflects the interventions in many of the previous local lockdown areas at the moment, and includes a restriction on households mixing indoors
- Tier 3 (Very high) – the government will set a baseline including a restriction on households mixing outdoors and the closure of bars and pubs. Additional closures may be applied to these areas: for example, including leisure centres, betting shops and casinos
Enter your postcode to find out which tier your local area is in and to access the full local lockdown guidance for your area.
National ‘firebreak’ lockdown for Wales
In October 2020, the Welsh government announced a national ‘firebreak’ lockdown, to commence on Friday 23 October from 6pm until the start of Monday 9 November.
During this period, people must:
- stay at home except for very limited purposes
- not visit other households or meet other people they do not live with
Certain business and venues – including estate agents, bars, restaurants and most shops – must close.
You can leave your home for work purposes, but only where it’s not reasonably practicable to work from home.
You can leave your home to attend court or to meet other legal obligations. HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has confirmed that courts will remain operational throughout the lockdown.
House moves will be allowed if the moving date cannot be delayed until after the short lockdown period is over.
Associated activities can take place in line with guidance on working in other people’s homes. For example, removals processes, property preparation, handover of keys, and surveys and valuations.
Anyone who is in Wales, whether resident or travelling there, is bound by these rules. However, travelling to a workplace in Wales is a reasonable excuse to leave home.
Similarly, people living in Wales can travel to England for work purposes where this is necessary and they cannot work from home.
Guidance for firms
1. Activate your business continuity plan
If you have not already, you should activate your business continuity plan (BCP) and make sure that it covers the following points:
Identify those staff members who are critical to the running of the business and especially those who are authorised to implement and manage the BCP.
Take steps to make sure that those staff members are able to implement the plan remotely. You should also consider how to cover those roles if a certain staff member is off work.
IT and lawtech
Make sure that all policies relating to remote working are up to date and effective and/or amend policies as necessary to incorporate the lessons learned from lockdown.
Ensure that your organisation’s IT, lawtech and communications systems are in place, robust, and can facilitate remote working. This should include ensuring that there’s sufficient equipment available.
This could be as simple as ensuring that company laptops can work securely on third party broadband and that company mobile phones can tether with company laptops, or that alternative broadband access is considered.
Depending on your firm’s requirements, it would be helpful to have:
- remote access to your server and systems (even if it's through staff member’s own device)
- secure video conference systems to get in touch with clients
- an electronic signature platform
If you have questions on lawtech, email our team at email@example.com.
Review finance processes and operations to make sure that staff can operate critical systems and that all staff can still be paid on time.
Put plans put in place to ensure suppliers (including that IT, broadband and mobile phone) are paid on time.
If applicable, identify staff who have company credit cards to ensure that emergency purchases can be authorised.
Consider the likely impact on cashflow of a local lockdown and conduct scenario planning for a closedown of one month or two months. This could include:
- preparing draft cashflow forecasts
- projecting potential loss of income by looking at the practice areas that are likely to be adversely affected by a local closedown
- identifying whether savings can be made in the short-to-medium term on expenditure and if anything could be deferred until after lockdown
Make sure that all staff can access a secure common communication platform (such as a video conferencing system or a WhatsApp chat group).
For your external communications, prepare tailored emails, automated voice messages and website copy to enable clients to know how to contact the firm.
Working remotely or from other local offices
If your local authority enters one of the higher tiers, individuals in the affected area should work from home if they’re able to, and only travel into, out of and within the local lockdown area for essential reasons.
If the office is in the affected area, but a staff member lives outside of the affected area, firms may wish to consider whether they can attend another local office if that office is outside of the affected area.
The government have provided guidelines on travel restrictions for areas under the different local COVID alert levels.
Review your risk register and incorporate appropriate updates to reflect the possibility of a local lockdown.
Drafting your risk register may help to focus on mitigation steps which need to be taken in this scenario.
2. Check your cyber security
Scams and fraud are on the rise, so it’s vital that firms and practitioners protect themselves.
Fraudsters are taking advantage of the measures announced by the government to support people and businesses affected by coronavirus.
For example, scammers may text, email or phone taxpayers pretending to offer financial support or tax refunds, or demanding payment of tax that they claim is owed.
We’ve produced a cybersecurity and fraud prevention hub to address some of the key security issues and scams that are affecting members and their clients.
We’ve also highlighted some technological platforms that are available which can help you and your firms remain compliant with your regulatory obligations.
3. Looking after your staff’s wellbeing
Managing your staff remotely also requires time and planning. Read our guidance on:
It’s crucial to promote and support good mental health and wellbeing for staff and practitioners during this next phase of the national response to the virus.
As we approach winter, and with the likelihood that further restrictions will be needed, some people will struggle and may need additional support.
If you run a large firm, make sure that virtual protocols for team management are put in place to further ensure that all staff are safe and feel supported.
If you manage a small firm, consider introducing a buddying system for the newer team members.
4. Enable your practice areas to keep business going
Electronic signatures and virtual execution of documents have enabled deals to be closed and business to keep moving during lockdown.
These resources will help practitioners to use these methods effectively:
- tips on virtual execution of documents
- Lexis Nexis protocol for virtual statutory declarations
- practice note on execution of a document using an electronic signature
- practice note on execution of documents by virtual means
Contact local courts and police stations to understand the status of these services.
We’ll also update our courts and tribunals building status tracker.
5. Keep in touch with local decision makers
Make sure you have the contact details of local business forums, local law societies and councillors to help you plan for getting out of lockdown.
6. Get ready to go back to the office
When it’s safe to do so, many firms will want to return to the office.
Check our practical framework for return to the office which is updated with the latest government guidance.
We’ll continue to provide the advice and direct support our members need to help weather this storm, and we’ll continue to make the case to the government for strong support for the legal services sector.
We want to quickly and efficiently communicate the areas you need more clarity on to the government.