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Coronavirus (COVID-19) advice and updates

3 April 2020

We know members will have questions about the implications of coronavirus (COVID-19) for their clients, their businesses, their professional obligations, their own wellbeing and that of their employees.

In response to questions from our members, our latest advice for firms is below.This information will be updated regularly to reflect the most recent guidance.

As well as the updates and advice below, we're influencing government, regulators and other stakeholders on behalf of our members.

If you have any questions or issues, contact us.

Follow us on Twitter for the latest updates

Find out more about what we're doing

Advice on attending court

Should I attend court?

 
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On 27 March the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) announced that for public safety reasons the work of the courts and tribunals will be consolidated into fewer buildings.

There are 157 priority court and tribunal buildings open for essential face-to-face hearings. This represents 42% of the 371 crown, magistrates and family courts across England and Wales.

In addition, a further 124 court and tribunal buildings will remain closed to the public but open to HMCTS staff, the judiciary and those from other agencies. These ‘staffed courts’ will support video and telephone hearings, progress cases without hearings and ensure continued access to justice.

Read the courts and tribunals tracker list of which buildings remain open

We have pressed for clear guidance from HMCTS about cases which will still go ahead, and what our members can reasonably expect in terms of processes and facilities to minimise risks.

The starting position for solicitors is not to attend court unless told otherwise. Only urgent cases are currently set to proceed. In those rare instances where in-person attendance is required, the solicitor will be contacted directly.

HMCTS has updated guidance following the Lord Chief Justice’s announcement on 23 March about jury trials. All new trials will be postponed for a short time. Read the full guidance.

Magistrates’ courts will only hear urgent cases (overnight custody and prisoner production). Parties involved in all other hearings should not attend court unless contacted directly. Updates will be posted on Twitter.

The following types of cases are being prioritised in the magistrates’ court:

CPS work

All custody cases, including:

  • overnight custody cases from police stations (including arrest warrants and breach of bail cases)
  • productions from prisons
  • applications to extend custody time limits

Terrorism and extradition (Westminster MC)

  • Arrest warrants issued under the Extradition Act
  • In hours and out of hours terrorism applications

Central and local government

  • Civil applications relating to public health legislation, particularly under the Coronavirus (Emergency) Act 2020 (when it becomes enforced)

Police

  • Warrants of further detention (police and HMRC)
  • Closure order applications
  • Urgent applications for domestic violence protection orders
  • Urgent applications for rights of entry or search warrants

HMCTS is continuously reviewing this list which may change at short notice. For further guidance about the courts see UK government advice below.

Advice for employers

We have an employee who is off work due to coronavirus and we do not have a comprehensive sick pay policy. What government support is available?

 
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Statutory sick pay (SSP) will be available from day one to everyone advised to self-isolate, and those caring for others in self-isolation.

For businesses with fewer than 250 employees, the cost of providing COVID-19 related SSP for up to 14 days will be refunded in full by the government to cover the costs of large-scale sick leave.

For further guidance see:

If you're concerned about the wellbeing of your staff, you can contact your local Public Health England Health Protection Team.

Do we have to allow people to work from home?

 
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The government has asked everyone who can work from home to do so. Its advice to employees states: “Work from home, where possible. Your employer should support you to do this.”

It's also highly likely that there will be periods over the next two years where the government will require parts of the workforce to stay at home, so it's important that you consider how a working from home default policy could be implemented.

You must act consistently and fairly across your organisation.

Employers have a duty of care to their employees, so you should regularly assess health and safety risks. This duty includes the need to take additional care with those who are known to be vulnerable. The government has highlighted those groups of people who are at most risk from coronavirus.

If you refuse to allow employees to stay at home and this goes against the advice of the government or Public Health England, then you will be at risk of facing a strong legal claim.

How does the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme work?

 
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All employers will be able to access support to continue paying part of their employees’ salary for those employees who would otherwise have been laid off during this crisis. HMRC will reimburse 80% of furloughed workers’ wage costs, up to a cap of £2,500 per employee per month.

HMRC is currently working out how the system will operate. What we do know is that in order to access the scheme organisations will need to:

  • designate affected employees as ‘furloughed workers’, and notify them of this change – changing the status of employees remains subject to existing employment law and, depending on the employment contract, may be subject to negotiation
  • submit information to HMRC about the employees that have been furloughed and their earnings through a new online portal
 

Advice for firm owners, managing partners or senior leaders

Can I ask my staff to come into the office?

 
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We know the vast majority of law firms will always try to do the right thing by their staff, but it is important as a membership organisation that we remind all firms that no one should be forced to come into the office during this time of lockdown.

The guidance is clear: while the wheels of our justice system continue to turn and some courts remain open, solicitors should still work from home wherever possible.

Firms have a responsibility to ensure that their staff are not at risk, and should not be demanding their staff turn up to work where it is not advisable to do so.

Are solicitors key workers?

 
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The government has confirmed that key workers (meaning those whose children can attend school) include those “essential to the running of the justice system”. These are:

  • advocates (including solicitor advocates) required to appear before a court or tribunal (remotely or in person), including prosecutors
  • other legal practitioners required to support the administration of justice including duty solicitors (police station and court) and barristers, solicitors, legal executives, paralegals and others who work on imminent or ongoing court or tribunal hearings
  • solicitors acting in connection with the execution of wills
  • solicitors and barristers advising people living in institutions or deprived of their liberty

Only legal practitioners who work on the types of matters, cases and hearings listed above can be classified as key workers.

Some legal practitioners will intermittently fall into this category because they need to provide advice or attend a hearing relating to an urgent matter such as safeguarding of children or vulnerable adults or a public safety matter. For the limited time required to deliver this work, a legal practitioner will be a key worker.

The government's guidance makes clear that even if you are a key worker, if your child can be looked after at home, they should be. In the current climate schools are not open just for education, but as places of safety for the few children who cannot safely be looked after at home, because those who are caring for them are key workers doing essential work.

Solicitors will need to decide responsibly for themselves whether they fall within the categories outlined, within the spirit of being essential to the running of the justice system, in accordance with the overriding objective of keeping children at home wherever possible.

What do I do if I need to respond to the Legal Ombudsman about a complaint, but I cannot access the files?

 
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If a former client makes a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO), the firm may be asked to respond within 14 days. This could cause difficulties, for example if the complaints handling partner is working at home and cannot access files, which may be archived and stored off site.

LeO has said that it will work to be as flexible as possible with service providers impacted by the crisis in situations such as not being able to access archived files.

It’s important that you inform LeO about the circumstances as soon as possible and co-operate in keeping LeO updated. It may help to show LeO copies of any relevant correspondence you have with your archive service provider.

It will also be important for LeO to keep the complainant updated about the delay in progressing their complaint.

What approach will LeO take if I cannot meet the eight week timeframe to respond to a client complaint?

 
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If a complaint is at the first-tier stage, but you cannot meet the eight week timeframe to respond (for example if you are a sole practitioner who is sick or self-isolating), it’s important to let the complainant know so that they do not think you are ignoring their complaint.

If possible, it may help to to give a timeframe for when you may be able to respond. If not, then try to keep the complainant informed at reasonable intervals. You should document any communications.

If the complainant escalates the matter to LeO then you can demonstrate that you took reasonable steps to communicate the circumstances and to keep the complainant informed of the situation.

You should also comply with your firm’s existing contingency plans, if any, as far as reasonably possible.

LeO has said that it will work to be as flexible as possible with service providers impacted by the crisis and would take your actions into account.

What arrangements are the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) making for hearings and applications?

 
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If you were due to appear at the SDT as a respondent, the SDT has confirmed that you should not travel to the tribunal until further notice. Its offices are closed. See the SDT website.

All substantive hearings until at least 9 April 2020 have been adjourned. The SDT intends to re-list substantive matters for the first open date after 12 weeks.

For hearings after this date the SDT is planning remote hearings. It will contact you directly about your case if it has not already done so.

If you need to contact the SDT about an application, a forthcoming hearing or sending documents, email enquiries@solicitorsdt.com. The SDT cannot receive post or DX at the moment.

Paper-based applications such as a variation of directions can still be progressed. These should be sent to the above email address.

The SDT has confirmed that new applications are also being considered and, if appropriate, issued and served by email.

How should firms operate if the MLRO or COLP has coronavirus?

 
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Most cases of coronavirus will be relatively mild and the period absent from the office, whether due to self-isolating or illness, will be akin to holiday periods, so no action should be necessary in the vast majority of firms.

It is good practice, when practical, to make sure that other senior solicitors are aware of any ongoing issues. It may be useful to have an informal deputy, given that the compliance officer for legal practice (COLP) role is person specific and no formal deputies can be registered with the SRA.

If you can, you should discuss with a colleague absence planning measures and nominate someone to fill in, maintain records and update the money laundering reporting officer (MLRO) or COLP on their return.

If the absence is going to be prolonged and virtual working using telephone, email and video conferencing is unlikely then it is possible to apply to the SRA to replace the COLP. When the original COLP returns, another application to return the function to the original post holder will be necessary. Firms have 28 days to apply for an emergency COLP if the post holder is unavailable long term.

If you're a sole practitioner, you should consider setting up an arrangement with another solicitor who can be available in situations such as this. Clients should not be left in limbo expecting a response. You should also ensure that your out of office response for emails has the latest information.

What are a solicitor’s professional obligations if they are unable to provide the services required, due to coronavirus?

 
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You should notify the client as soon as practical that due to coronavirus issues the service cannot be provided, and suggest that they try another solicitor (perhaps giving a list of three alternatives or a link to the Law Society’s Find a Solicitor service).

If the matter is due to complete shortly then seeking a deferral of completion is a sensible step, or asking another colleague to complete the deal.

You should ensure that your out of office response for emails has the latest information. It is important the client does not lose out because they think you are going to respond.

What’s the guidance where work involves home visits, care home visits, hospice and hospital visits to clients who are often seriously ill, if not near to death?

 
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In general, we recommend following the government advice which is being regularly updated and at the time of writing includes good hygiene habits and social distancing.

If the client is in a risk category, it is preferable to find a way to deal with the matter remotely, for example by Skype.

If you judge that a physical visit is imperative, choose personnel who are not a risk to the client and who are not at high risk themselves. Both the client and the employee will need to agree to the meeting despite any risk.

If you cannot assist in the above circumstances, an urgent referral to another solicitor may be appropriate.

Could it be considered unreasonable to refuse to take instructions for emergency wills from prospective clients (in vulnerable risk categories), bearing in mind prospective clients can bring complaints to LeO for ‘unreasonable refusal of service’?

 
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See the guidance on the SRA website

In addition to the SRA’s guidance we also suggest putting your operating arrangements on your website, so that potential customers will have notice when they enquire.

Our firm is likely to be in financial distress in the next few weeks due to cash flow. What support is available?

 
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The MoJ has published some interim measures to assist firms with cash flow. These include:

  • initiatives to support civil, family, and criminal legal aid practitioners to keep the justice system running
  • changes to make hardship payments easier to access – including reducing the threshold for work done to £1,000, rather than the current £5,000
  • pausing some debt repayments to the LAA for legal firms
  • aligning legal aid fees for First Tier Tribunal immigration and asylum appeals with HMCTS’s move to an online system for these cases

The government has increased the support available for both small and large businesses.

VAT and income tax deferral

The government has announced that it will defer VAT payments for all businesses for three months from 20 March until 30 June 2020. No application is needed. Businesses will not need to make a VAT payment during this period. Taxpayers will be given until the end of the 2020/21 tax year to pay any accumulated liabilities.

In addition, self-employed people will be able to defer income tax payments (without interest or penalty) otherwise due in July 2020 under the self-assessment system. These will be deferred to January 2021. Again, no application is needed.

Loans for small and medium sized firms or businesses

A new temporary Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme will be delivered by the British Business Bank.

It will facilitate business finance for smaller UK-based businesses (with a turnover of no more than £45 million) that are viable but cannot obtain finance because they have insufficient security to meet the lender’s normal requirements. It will provide accredited lenders with a government-backed 80% guarantee against the outstanding loan balance.

The government will not charge businesses or banks for this guarantee, and the scheme will support loans of up to £5 million, with no interest due for the first 12 months. More information is available at the British Business Bank website.

Loans for larger firms and businesses

To support liquidity there will be a new lending facility with the Governor of the Bank of England to provide low cost, easily accessible loans. It is only available to companies, so it would appear not to assist professional partnerships and LLPs. This facility will be available from the week commencing 23 March 2020.

Business rates

The government will provide further funding for local authorities to support businesses eligible for Small Business Rate Relief or Rural Rate Relief. This will take the form of £10,000 cash grants to 700,000 of the country’s smallest businesses, delivered by local authorities.

Insurance

Firms should check with their insurance providers if they are covered for any losses incurred due to the virus.

Private lenders

A number of private lenders are also making funds available to small businesses impacted by COVID-19, including £2 billion from Lloyds Banking Group and £5 billion from NatWest.

Off-payroll working

In a move that could help firms and contract workers operating through ‘lawyers on demand’ type arrangements, the government has announced that the planned extension of the off-payroll working rules to the private sector will be delayed until April 2021.

Other measures

There are likely to be further measures to follow.

The new COVID Bill is likely to enable the government to offer whatever further financial support it thinks necessary to businesses.

We are unlikely to be able to pay the firm’s tax bill. What shall we do?

 
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HMRC has established a dedicated COVID-19 helpline to help businesses and self-employed individuals in financial distress and with outstanding tax liabilities receive support with their tax affairs.

Through this, businesses may be able to agree a bespoke ‘Time to Pay’ arrangement.

HMRC Coronavirus Helpline

Telephone: 0800 015 9559
Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm
Saturday, 8am to 4pm

We are unable to meet the deadline to file company accounts. What should we do?

 
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Companies House announced that from 25 March 2020 businesses will be able to apply for a three-month extension for filing their accounts.

This joint initiative between the government and Companies House will mean businesses can prioritise managing the impact of coronavirus. For more information see Companies House's press release.

Find out more

What are our regulatory obligations if the firm is facing financial distress?

 
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Solicitors and firms continue to be obliged to act in compliance with the SRA Standards and Regulations should they encounter financial difficulty.

That means, among other things, that solicitors and firms must always act with integrity and they must tell the SRA personally if they are in serious financial difficulty.

Read the SRA guidance on this issue

Our firm does not have the capability to support remote working. How can we ensure business continuity to serve our clients’ needs?

 
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We understand that there are some firms, particularly small firms, that do not have remote working capability. If you have not already done so, you could develop a business continuity plan (BCP) made up of the following steps:

Critical staff

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.

Do a skills audit to consider the skills of all staff and the levels of work that they can undertake when necessary. This should not just consider lawyers but all support staff. You must understand exactly who does what within the firm and if steps are made to self-isolate, who will be doing what tasks during the incident.

Think about protecting those business-critical staff at an early stage by arranging for them to work in a separate part of the office, from home, or from a pre-planned remote location. 

IT

Ensure that IT and communications systems are robust enough and can facilitate remote working, and that there is enough 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.

Facilities

Review facilities. Firms that have their own buildings are better able to implement effective housekeeping and hygiene procedures, such as hand sanitation, hard surface wipes etc. 

Firms with shared office space should coordinate with other business owners in the building to agree a joint hygiene policy – such as hourly disinfecting of common area bathrooms, door handles and lift buttons.

Finance processes

Review finance processes and operations to ensure that staff can operate and that all staff can still be paid on time. Put plans put in place to ensure that IT, broadband and mobile phone suppliers are paid on time. 

You could also identify staff who have company credit cards to ensure that emergency purchases can be authorised.

Communications

Ensure all staff can access a secure common communication platform (such as a WhatsApp chat group). Think about introducing a buddy system to further ensure that all staff are safe and feel supported.

Should we close the firm temporarily?

 
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At present, the government advises that businesses and workplaces should encourage their employees to work at home wherever possible. We encourage firms to adopt remote working practices where they can.

Employees will need your support to adhere to the recommendation to stay at home to reduce the spread of the virus.

Employees from defined vulnerable groups should be strongly advised and supported to stay at home and work from there if possible.

What's the latest advice on stamp duty procedure on paper documents?

 
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HMRC has temporarily closed the stamp presses due to measures put in place to stop the spread of coronavirus.

As a result, you should not post stock transfer forms and other paper documents for stamping to HMRC. Instead, as part of a temporary new procedure, you should email an electronic version of the documents to HMRC at stampdutymailbox@hmrc.gov.uk.

If you have already posted your instruments you should resubmit your notification electronically and include the details of any payments you have made in respect of that notification.

This change does not affect stamp duty land tax.

Read HMRC's guidance on how the new temporary procedure operates

Further HMRC guidance published on 27 March covers how these new procedures will apply to various situations including:

 

Advice for private client practitioners

What are the implications of the rules on social distancing and isolation for work on wills?

 
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Under the Wills Act 1837, it is not permitted to witness a will via video messaging as a witness must be physically present, however it is possible to supervise the signing of a will using electronic means where you are not acting as a witness to the will.

We've received numerous queries from members about this issue and are actively pursuing a way forward.

We have approached the Ministry of Justice and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) about the legislative and regulatory barriers to executing wills in the current context, including requirements for witnessing wills, and the use of video conferencing facilities.

We have had initial discussions with the Ministry of Justice regarding the requirements for witnessing a will and we'll continue to engage with the Ministry of Justice to find a way forward in the current circumstances. We will update members once we have received further advice.

Following our discussion with the SRA, it has updated its guidance for solicitors who practice in this area.

We suggest members ask clients to video record the signing of the will if possible and keep good file notes on how instructions came in and how the will was signed. You may also want to think about discussing re-signing the will with clients once social distancing requirements are lifted, where this is appropriate.

Advice for members visiting police stations, prisons or courts

Is the Law Society pressing the police, prison service and courts to make simple changes to ensure safety?

 
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Yes. We are pushing for policies and procedures to ensure that:

  • risks to our members are identified and our members are informed when a client, or other person with whom they may come into contact, may be infected
  • members and clients can maintain hygiene (for example access to soap and water and sanitiser)
  • alternative forms of advising and taking instructions (for example by telephone) are facilitated
  • rules are adjusted so that members are not penalised for complying with safety advice, social distancing requirements, etc.

HMTCS has issued the following guidance:

“We’ve updated our entering courts and tribunals security policy. You can now bring hand sanitiser into our buildings – our court security officers will ask you to use it to prove it’s not harmful.

“Government guidance is available for workplaces. Although courts and tribunals are not businesses, the principles should be applied to the work of courts and tribunals. This includes the approach to take on wearing facemasks and what to do if someone is suspected of having the virus.”

We're talking to the Ministry of Justice about possible moves to remote forms of hearing, although this has to be balanced against the need to ensure that hearings remain fair where they go ahead.

What precautions are being taken for legal advisors visiting custody suites?

 
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The National Police Chiefs' Council (NPPC) has issued guidance to forces on COVID-19 precautions in custody suites. Section 4 concerns external visitors, including legal advisors. It states:

"It is recognised that other professionals and visitors will be required to attend police custody during the COVID 19 pandemic.

Forces are urged to consider the health and wellbeing of all custody users, including external visitors, when implementing local policy.

Forces are encouraged to implement local screening practices which may include health questions, before visitors are admitted.

Where access is essential for the effective running of the custody centre, the criminal justice process or the welfare of those in custody, this should be facilitated, but with consideration to minimising the risk of transmission of the virus either into the custody facility or to the visitor themselves.

Particular consideration should be given to those persons who are considered most at risk in line with the advice issued by Public Health England (PHE), such as those over 70 years of age or with pre-existing medical conditions.

In addition, those who are suspected of, or identified as having contracted COVID 19 should be excluded wherever possible.

Appropriate hygiene facilities, such as soap/sanitiser should be made available to all visitors including access to appropriate PPE where applicable…"

"Enabling detainees to exercise their right to legal advice is essential. Custody staff should work in conjunction with legal representatives to ensure this process is effectively managed. Consideration should be given to telephone advice in appropriate circumstances."

Coronavirus interview protocol

 
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We've worked with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) on a coronavirus interview protocol, to assist investigators and prosecutors in deciding whether suspects should be interviewed as part of a police investigation during the coronavirus pandemic.

Advice for international firms

Do we continue to allow employees to travel internationally for work?

 
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The Foreign Office has advised the British public to avoid non-essential travel anywhere in the world for at least 30 days.

Some individual countries have stopped UK citizens and people having been in the UK in the last two weeks from travelling or are asking them to self-isolate on arrival.

See the latest FCO travel advice

Advice for conveyancers

What steps can/should solicitors take to explain the risks and protect clients buying or selling property if there are delays on exchanges of contract or on completion caused by coronavirus?

 
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The government has released new guidance for buying and selling residential properties during the coronavirus outbreak (26 March 2020).

In response, we have issued the following statement:

“We welcome the government’s advice which provides much needed clarity around some of the issues home buyers and sellers are facing,” said Simon Davis, Law Society president. “Those who have not exchanged contracts would be well advised to wait and those who have exchanged contracts are encouraged to take a practical view and extend the contractual completion date if this can be agreed - and if the risks are clearly understood by both buyers and sellers.”

“Our members will now be talking to their clients to try to find workable alternatives to completion - in situations where there may be practical barriers whilst social distancing requirements are in place.

"They will be aiming to find pragmatic solutions in situations where contracts have been exchanged but the purchase is not yet completed.

“There remain further issues that require consideration, and we will continue to liaise with government and update our own advice to members accordingly.”

See our information on COVID-19 and residential conveyancing transactions

Advice for litigators

What should I do if I have court deadlines coming up?

 
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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.

Find out more

Advice for legal aid firms

Will the Legal Aid Agency be able to provide support to legal aid providers affected by coronavirus?

 
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We have asked the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) and the Ministry of Justice about the steps they will take to support firms and solicitors through this period, including whether solicitors could be able to bill for legal aid work done at an earlier stage to support firms' cash flows.

The LAA is regularly updating its guidance for legal aid providers

We're continuing to push for further guidance and clarification, particularly about contract obligations which need to be relaxed, practical issues caused by working remotely, and cash flow.

The LAA has published a list of existing ways legal firms can seek financial assistance. These include:

  • payments on account in civil cases
  • interim payments and hardship claims in the Crown Court

The LAA has also produced guidance on the Family Advocacy Scheme (PDF) in response to the significant increase in remote family hearings.

We have made the following points to the LAA, many of which it has now addressed through its guidance:

  • While there is public health guidance in effect, the provisions requiring 14 hours of contract work and 36 attendances to qualify as a duty solicitor should be suspended. A mere “discretion” for contract managers to be lenient is not enough.
  • The requirement to maintain an office open to the public should be suspended.
  • Remote supervision should be acceptable for the duration of the crisis.
  • For the duration of this crisis, no recoupment of payments should be made in the absence of outright fraud.
  • If a firm fails to comply with its obligations as a duty solicitor for reasons related to coronavirus, either because of health concerns relating to the lawyer or client or because of a failure of the police or courts to provide reasonable health protection, this should not be regarded as a breach of contract.
  • All standard or variable monthly payments should be retained at their current levels until public health restrictions have been removed.
  • While the public health guidance remains in effect, payments for police station attendances where the solicitor attends the interview remotely should be paid the full police station fee, and not merely the telephone attendance fee.
  • Where a bill is submitted and there is a query or dispute about part of it, the undisputed part should be paid straight away.
  • The LAA should urgently discuss with the profession making arrangements for work to be billed as it's done, rather than only at the end of a case.
  • The LAA should take urgent steps to enable legal aid to be granted without a wet signature, and to put in place workarounds for all other processes that currently require physical co-location, such as signing forms in the family advocacy scheme.
  • The LAA should enter into discussions with the profession about relaxing the novation requirements, so that when firms collapse, there is flexibility for other providers to help address the situation.

To receive regular updates, sign up to our legal aid e-alerts.

 

Advice for trainees

What is the Job Retention Scheme and what is furloughing?

 
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Under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, all UK employers with a PAYE scheme will be able to access support to continue paying part of their employees’ salary for those that would otherwise have been laid off during this crisis.

This applies to employees who have been asked to stop working, but who are being kept on the payroll, termed ‘furloughed workers’. HMRC will reimburse 80% of their wages, up to £2,500 per month, from 1 March for three months. The government wants to minimise the number of workers being made redundant during the coronavirus crisis.

‘Furloughing’ simply means putting an employee on a paid leave of absence. If you are furloughed you’ll still be employed by your organisation, but you’re not allowed to do any work for them.

The minimum period an employee can be furloughed if the organisation wishes to seek compensation is three weeks.

You maintain all your employment rights and benefits while you're furloughed. For example, you will continue to accrue holiday leave.

If at any point your organisation decides that it cannot continue to employ you it will have to follow employment law when ending your employment.

 

Can trainees be furloughed?

 
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Yes, in the vast majority of cases. The scheme applies to all those employees who would otherwise be made redundant within an organisation that asks for support. It does not apply to contractors who are not on the PAYE system.

The SRA has stated that trainees can be supervised remotely and that it is the firm’s responsibility to make suitable arrangements. Therefore, working from home does not need to mean that a trainee should be furloughed. See the SRA website for more information.

 

Do I have to agree to be furloughed?

 
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The government says that employees will have to agree to be furloughed. In reality those who an employer asks to furlough may not have a choice as the alternative is redundancy.

Under most employment law contracts employees have the right to be paid, not the right to work. It is probable that if an organisation tops up the government’s contribution so that the employee receives their normal salary, it can insist that the employee be furloughed.

The government’s guidance says that the employer must apply the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme in a way that is consistent with equality law, but does not expand on what this means.

 

Can I work for someone else while I’m furloughed?

 
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It is possible, but a lot will depend on the employment contract you have with your employer. Most people’s contracts require them to be available if their employer asked them to be, so it would not be possible for a furloughed employee to take another job within their usual contracted hours.

Employees would also still have their duty of fidelity and are unlikely to allow an employee to work for a competitor.

Can I volunteer while I’m furloughed?

 
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Furloughed employees are allowed to volunteer as long as they’re not adding value to their employer. This means that lawyers may be able to volunteer in law centres and offer pro-bono help.

The one caveat is that your employer may place restrictions on your external activities so you should read your employment contract before agreeing to any volunteer activity. You may need to ask your employer to grant permission, even while furloughed.

What impact will being furloughed have on my training and ability to qualify?

 
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We are aware of concerns around the impact of being furloughed on timescales for qualifying and we’re continuing to engage with the SRA to support those entering the profession.

What is the impact of coronavirus on new training contracts?

 
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Unfortunately it's impossible to know at this time how the current outbreak situation may affect training contracts which are yet to start. If you’re in this situation you should contact the firm you are due to start with and ask them for an update.

What's the likely impact on those qualifying this year for newly qualified positions with their firms, or others?

 
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If you’re currently training with a firm you should communicate with your employer to find out how this current outbreak situation may affect workforce planning for the next year.

Unfortunately much of the legal profession is experiencing difficulties and it is an evolving situation.

You could also consider speaking to a specialist legal recruiter in your local area about the newly qualified job market.

I am due to complete the PSC this year, what arrangements are in place for this?

 
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The SRA has outlined the arrangements for the PSC and other assessments on its website.

Other official resources

Government guidance

The UK government is issuing advice to individuals and employers as it moves from the contain phase to the delay phase of managing the pandemic.

See the latest advice for:

UK government advice

HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS)

HMCTS daily updates

HMCTS advice and guidance

Courts and Tribunals Judiciary advice and guidance

HMCTS has updated guidance following the Lord Chief Justice’s announcement on 23 March about jury trials. All new trials will be postponed for a short time. Read the full guidance.

HMCTS has also published guidance on GOV.UK in relation to the coronavirus outbreak stating the following:

Family courts

HMCTS has also published the following guidance:

National Guidance for the Family Court: Message from the Family Court Division. Updated 19 March. This guidance is intended to be followed with immediate effect by all levels of the Family Court and in the High Court Family Division. Read in full.

Message from the Lord Chief Justice to judges in the Civil and Family Courts. Updated 19 March. Read in full.

Telephone and video hearings

HMCTS telephone and video hearings during coronavirus outbreak. Updated 18 March. HMCTS have published new guidance on use of telephone and video technology during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Criminal law

HMCTS priorities during coronavirus outbreak

New protocol for handling custody time limit cases

Regulatory advice

Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) guidance

Welsh Government advice

Information on child arrangement orders

Welsh Government specific business support

COVID-19 advice from the Welsh Government

Useful Twitter updates:

Stay up to date

To stay up to date on the impact on the sector and our latest support:

Firms should also sign up to receive government email alerts to ensure they are acting on the latest information

Redirecting your weekly Gazette magazine

Many Gazette readers are working remotely as a result of the coronavirus. If you would like your weekly print issue delivered to your home rather than your firm, contact our subscriptions team (with your SRA number) at gazette-subscriptions@lawsociety.org.uk .

More information

Coronavirus (COVID-19): our priority issues

Coronavirus (COVID-19) and residential conveyancing transactions

Coronavirus (COVID-19): support for our members’ wellbeing

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