Common legal issues and coronavirus (COVID-19) toolkit for MPs

We've put together a toolkit as a resource to help MPs and their staff answer questions they're likely to be getting from constituents.

Your local constituents will be facing significant challenges in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, including a number of legal issues.

We know that many MPs are being contacted by constituents asking for support with these issues. This toolkit’s intended as a resource to help you and your staff answer questions you're likely to be getting from your constituents.

Legal issues can be confusing, complex and leave your constituents unsure of what they need to do and what could happen as a result of the decisions they make.

Although this guidance does not replace legal advice it provides an overview of the key issues, the legal points to consider and the government or regulator guidance which may help constituents.

A solicitor can guide constituents through relevant legal processes, let them know what choices are available and answer any questions they have.

Getting early advice from a solicitor means that your constituents can benefit immediately from the support of a trained legal professional who will understand their circumstances and work to obtain the best possible outcome.

The solicitors’ profession feels a strong sense of responsibility to help keep the wheels of justice turning and to uphold the rule of law through these unprecedented times.

Many solicitors continue to serve the public as key workers to ensure that they can continue to facilitate access to justice, and support in legal matters, where it’s needed. Others are adapting their businesses so they can support individuals, families and businesses who are facing legal issues or need advice whilst maintaining social distancing rules.

Finding a local law firm or solicitor to support your constituent is simple. You can search Find a Solicitor, the Law Society's official database of legal professionals.

If there are other legal issues that Law Society can support you in as you help your constituents, email parliamentary@lawsociety.org.uk.

Common issues

Dealing with housing issues

In March, the Coronavirus Act 2020 implemented a three-month notice period for all evictions, meaning that, in England, all notice served between 26 March and 28 August must provide a tenant with this notice period.

On 28 August, this was extended to six months for all tenancies (including section 21 eviction) but excluding notices relating to anti-social behaviour, fraud and where a tenant has accrued at least six months’ rent, which have returned to pre-COVID-19 notice periods as per the relevant legislation.

In Wales, notice periods for all tenancies between 26 March and 23 July must give three-months’ notice, and those given on or after 24 July must give at least six months (excluding those relating to anti-social behaviour).

If a tenant does not vacate the property by the end of the notice period, a landlord cannot force a tenant to leave the home without a court order for possession.

The stay on evictions has now been lifted, so landlords are able to make applications to court. However, the application process for possession orders is now different (see below).

Tenants are still required to pay their full rent. If tenants are struggling with this or are unable to pay, conversations with the landlord should be had as soon as possible. All other requirements of the tenancy should be adhered to.

It’s important to note that court proceedings must be considered a last resort in issues concerning possession.

Within the new process structure (see below), judges will look at the conversations between landlord and tenant regarding inability to pay rent as a result of the pandemic before making any orders. Landlords and tenants should be open to these conversations and should record them for submission to the court, if necessary.

Landlords may also want to encourage tenants to receive legal advice as solicitors will be able to advise on any benefits available to them.

Landlords are encouraged by government to be understanding and compassionate towards tenants currently facing financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Landlords and tenants are encouraged to have open conversations about a tenant’s ability to pay rent and possible ways of moving forward. This could include agreeing a lower amount of rent for a temporary period, as well as a payment plan for any rent arrears that accumulate.

The parties are encouraged to make a note of these discussion, perhaps via email to help both sides stick to the agreement.

The guidance put together by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on this includes information on advice for paying rent, local authority funding and the benefits system.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 only applied to tenants and so licences to occupy (which is an agreement whereby the licensor permits the licensee non-exclusive occupation of the premises for a short period of time) are generally not covered (unless it’s a secure licence under the Housing Act 1985).

However, landlords are encouraged by the government to work with renters in the same ways as those with tenancies. Open conversations and temporary agreements could help renters and landlords move forward with paying rent while facing financial difficulties.

The stay on evictions has now been lifted and courts opened on 20 September, so landlords can now file applications to the court for possession orders.

However, there’s a significant backlog of cases and there could be a significant wait for a listing, including for accelerated claims.

It’s therefore best that the landlord and the tenant try to resolve the issues between themselves, using court processes as a last resort.

The process for possession orders has been amended to better handle the backlog of cases and to prevent a spike in homelessness. Read the guidance on the amended process for possession orders

The main changes to the process are:

  • if a landlord made a claim for possession before 3 August 2020, they must serve a reactivation notice to the court, informing the court they wish to proceed with the claim. There’s a six-month window to file this notice: if no reactivation notice is served by 4pm on 29 January 2021, you will have to make a formal application to restart the case. Reactivation notice can be served by either the landlord or the tenant. If a landlord has several claims at the same court, a notice must be served for each individual claim. See the guidance on reactivation notices
  • if a possession claim was made after 3 August, the case will be processed without the need for a reactivation notice. However, you will need to disclose the impact of the pandemic on the tenant
  • a case marking system has been brought in to distinguish cases being brought as a consequence of the pandemic. This applies to both the tenant and the landlord, with both being able to set their circumstances out for the court. See the case marking section of the guidance
  • there is now a two-stage process to possession hearings, the purpose of which is to engage both landlords and tenants in the process earlier, to encourage them to reach agreements without a full hearing and to provide more opportunity for tenants to receive legal advice. See the review section of the guidance
  • a hearing can happen either in-person or remotely. If either party would like the hearing to take place remotely, a written request must be sent to the court, with both parties agreeing. The judge will have final say over how the hearing will be undertaken

Not all courts will be ‘open’ and regional lockdowns may be in force. There will also be strict safety measures in place for all court users. The HMCTS website contains more information.

It’s vital that tenants engage with the possession process as early as possible and receive legal advice.

Advisers will be able to help them to understand the process, to understand their rights, set out the financial help that may be open to them and encourage constructive conversations with landlords, perhaps avoiding court proceedings altogether.

Tenants may be able to receive funded legal advice, subject to a means test.

Where a tenant has not engaged or cannot engage legal advice before the hearing, advice and representation will be available to all tenants on the day of the review date and/or substantive hearing regardless of means.

The government is urging local authorities, landlords and tenants to work together to keep properties safe and habitable.

It’s our understanding that urgent category one hazards (serious and immediate risk to a person's health and safety) should be repaired and that tenants should allow a landlord or contractors to enter the property in order to carry out these repairs.

A pragmatic approach should be taken when agreeing on any disrepair that needs to be fixed during the lockdown. Tenants should still let landlords know when an issue arises so that the landlord can take appropriate action.

Local authority enforcement should also continue but should follow a pragmatic approach so that tenants living in properties with serious hazards that a landlord has failed to remedy should still receive local authority support.

However, landlords are not likely to be unfairly penalised where current circumstances prevent them from meeting some routine obligations.

A landlord’s obligation to provide a decent, warm and safe place to live have not changed. This means that a property should be kept in good repair and free from hazards, even though carrying out regular inspections is difficult at the moment.

Where there are urgent health and safety issues, it’s recommended that tenants permit landlords, contractors or local authorities into the property to carry out any inspections or repairs (if possible, it’s suggested that inspections are carried out virtually with a phone or computer).

It’s still possible to follow the government’s advice on preventing the spread of the virus should a tenant permit a landlord, contractor or local authority to enter the property. This includes keeping two metres from them (perhaps staying in another room during the visit) and following hygiene guidance.

A landlord can apply to either the County Court or the High Court for a warrant of possession. Bailiffs are now able to enter homes and will follow the latest advice when undertaking the eviction.

Where local lockdowns or other restrictions are in place, a bailiff may not be able to enter a property. A court should be able to advise on this and provide information about any changes.

There will be a suspension on execution of evictions over the Christmas period, with the exception of the most serious cases. A landlord’s responsibilities regarding the carrying out of an eviction remain in place. See the warrants and bailiffs section of the guidance.

Moving house

The most recent government guidelines advise the following in relation to all property moves taking place while social distancing measures are in place:

  • people are free to move home, however the process of finding and moving into a new home is likely to be different, as those involved in the process will need to adapt practices and procedures to ensure that the risk of spread of coronavirus is reduced as far as possible
  • all parties are being encouraged to be as flexible as possible over this period and to be prepared to delay moves if needed, for example if someone becomes ill with coronavirus during the moving process or has to self-isolate. Your constituent should not expect to move into any home where people are ill or self-isolating. The NHS test and trace system means that the risk of the transaction not completing may be higher although it’s still a small risk
  • buyers and sellers are asked to be as flexible as possible if asked to delay a move, in the event that one of the parties contracts coronavirus or has to self-isolate
  • a legal adviser can help to ensure that any contract entered into has sufficient flexibility to allow the purchase to be delayed if necessary

Once contracts have been exchanged, a legal agreement to sell or buy that home is now in place.

If the completion date is within the emergency period (this means the period covered by the 2020 Coronavirus Regulations), and the solicitor and the rest of the parties agree to proceed, there’s currently nothing to legally prevent your constituent from proceeding.

If the house your constituent is buying is empty, then it will be easier to agree the move. However, if your constituent is in a chain, it could be more difficult.

It’s possible to negotiate a deferred date for completion. Be aware that delaying the transaction may mean repeating searches and surveys, which could increase costs. Otherwise, your constituent may want to agree that the contract is no longer effective.

Your constituent's solicitor is best placed to advise on the options available.

The transaction will continue to be governed by the provisions in the contract unless the parties agree otherwise.

If completion does not take place after contracts have been exchanged due to COVID-19, the parties not completing will be in default.

The contract provisions relating to default, such as notices to complete, penalty interest and deposit loss, will probably apply unless the other party takes a ‘good faith’ view.

If completion does not take place on the agreed date, then the solicitor acting for the party who can complete can serve a notice to complete.

This notice gives the defaulting party 10 working days in which to complete and it’s at that point that the person in default could potentially lose their 10% deposit if completion does not take place within those 10 days.

They could also be responsible for all ‘wasted costs’, such as storage of furniture and other expenses.

Buyers and sellers should not exchange contracts unless they fully understand the risks.

If your constituent has already exchanged contracts, they can try to negotiate an extended or deferred completion date – so the completion can take place after the emergency period.

Your constituent could ask their legal adviser to add a clause to the contract which specifies certain situations, including delay caused by the impact of coronavirus, in which completion can be delayed if one of the stated situations arises after contracts have been exchanged. All contracts in the chain of transactions would need to contain similar provisions.

If as a result of one of these coronavirus-related reasons, your constituent is unable to proceed with the transaction, they will not have any financial liability to the other parties in the chain.

A clause has been drafted to help firms agree contract terms, with the aim of enabling completion dates to be deferred more easily, if completion needs to be delayed.

The aim is to enable exchange of contracts with a short period to completion to give consumers and their removers more certainty to plan the move safely, whilst at the same time dealing with the potential issues should a party be affected by the virus or be notified through the NHS test and trace service.

This would depend on whether or not completion has taken place.

If the parties have completed, even though they may not have moved into the house, then they will still be responsible for the mortgage payments because they will have received the mortgage funds.

If they have exchanged contracts and completion has not yet taken place, the government has sought to agree with banks that mortgage offers should be extended where delay to completions takes place in order to prioritise safety.

Some mortgage lenders are working to find ways to enable customers who have exchanged contracts to extend their mortgage offer for up to three months to enable them to move at a later date.

While generally lenders have agreed to extend the mortgage instructions for three months you should establish whether any formal confirmation is necessary and if the lender can provide it.

If a customer’s circumstances change during this three-month period or the terms of the house purchase change significantly and continuing with the mortgage would cause house buyers to face financial hardship, lenders will work with customers to help them manage their finances as a matter of urgency.

Note that the three-month extension period generally relates only to those who have already exchanged contracts, but you should check with the lender as they could operate on an individual case-by-case basis.

They may need to discuss the following with their lender:

  • any changes to their financial circumstances
  • any change in price
  • any change to their lender's lending policy in terms of loan-to-value ratios

As local authorities and personal search agents reduce or close services and replies to local authority searches might become problematic, they may need to ask what alternatives are acceptable to lenders.

Home warranty providers may move to virtual final inspections – they may need to check that this is acceptable to insurers and lenders.

All parties must follow advice from Public Health England and Public Health Wales on social distancing and must not endanger themselves or others during the move.

A deep clean must be completed if moving to a new home and there is advice given for decontamination if it’s known, or there is reason to believe, that the previous occupants, or someone they had been in contact with, has coronavirus.

All those involved should take care to follow government guidance on social distancing and hygiene.

This depends on whether contracts have been exchanged.

If contracts have been exchanged, there are legal agreements which mean that pulling out of the contract may have implications up and down the chain. The party pulling out may face financial implications as a result.

If contracts have not yet been exchanged, then, as is usually the case, anyone can pull out of the transaction without penalty.

During the emergency period, some firms have recommended to clients that they should exchange contracts simultaneously with completion. This solves some problems – for example, the risk of completion not happening is reduced – but creates others: for example, if there’s a chain, all transactions would need to agree simultaneous exchange and completion which may be difficult and may not always be suitable.

Some firms suggest that encouraging clients to agree a date for exchange and completion a week or so in advance enables them to start packing up and booking removers for a fixed future date. 

There are obviously still risks with this approach and some removers may not make a booking unless contracts have been exchanged. The risks need to be assessed against the risks of having a short time between exchange and completion.

A practical approach might be to limit the period between exchange and completion to five working days, having submitted the certificate on title and obtained clear final searches ahead of exchange, but these matters are all for negotiation once your constituent has provided instructions to their legal adviser.

Having a short period of time between exchange and completion does not eliminate the possibility that someone in the chain may become ill or receive a test result in this time and not be able to move. The transaction may need to be paused at short notice.

Remember where a constituent is buying and selling simultaneously any bespoke provisions should usually apply throughout the chain. Risk should be apportioned fairly.

The aim is to provide the same solution and let the risk fall in the same place across the chain, even if this may be difficult to negotiate.

If all parties have agreed to defer the completion date, conveyancers should exchange a written agreement to vary the contract.

To avoid contamination through a physical document, the parties will need to either e-sign the agreement to vary the existing contract or authorise their solicitor to sign as agent on their behalf.

This will require a formal exchange process. It should be made clear that there is not an intention to create a new contract; only to vary the existing contract.

The Law Society, Society of Licensed Conveyancers, Conveyancing Association, CILEx and Bold Legal Group, have worked together to agree the outline of a process for deferring a completion date. 

As always, every case should be treated on an individual basis and any clauses or processes suggested should be amended and tailored to those individual needs. Your constituent’s solicitor will be able to advise on this.

A working group of the Home Buying and Selling Group has also drafted a clause to help firms agree contract terms, with the aim of enabling completion dates to be deferred more easily, if completion needs to be delayed unexpectedly.

The aim is to enable exchange of contracts with a short period to completion, giving consumers and their removers more certainty to plan the move safely, whilst at the same time dealing with the potential issues should a party be impacted by the virus or be notified through the NHS test and trace service.

Employment

The Job Retention Scheme will finish at the end of October. It will be replaced by the Job Support Scheme.

The Job Support Scheme (JSS) will provide ongoing wage support for people in work, provided that the employee is working at least 33% of their usual hours, and the employer also provides additional wage support.

It will start on 1 November 2020 and continue until the end of April 2021.

Like the furlough scheme the JSS is open to all employers who have a UK bank account and a UK PAYE scheme.

The main difference with the furlough scheme is that larger employers will need to meet a financial assessment test. The details of this test have not been published yet, though at the very least large organisations will need to demonstrate that their turnover is lower as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

SMEs will not be subject to the test.

Employees must have been on the organisation’s PAYE payroll on or before 23 September 2020. They must work at least 33% of their usual hours.

Employers who have not previously used the furlough scheme can access the JSS and employees do not have to have been furloughed to be put on the JSS.

The government “expects” that large employers will not make capital distributions of any kind if they need to use the JSS, though we do not know yet how this demand will work legally.

Employees will be paid their normal salary for all hours worked. For their normal hours that they do not work:

  • the employer pays a third
  • the government pays a third (up to a cap of £697.92, which is equivalent to a salary of £38,000 per annum)
  • and the final third the employee has to accept as being unpaid

The JSS does not cover Class 1 Employer NICs or pension contributions, so these contributions will remain fully payable by the employer.

The purpose of the JSS is to save jobs that are likely to still exist in the spring.

If an organisation wishes to make an employee redundant, they will need to move them off the JSS before a notice of redundancy can be issued.

The details of how employers can make a claim have not been published, but we do know that it will be an online system, which will be open from December 2020.

Government payments will be made monthly in arrears. Claims will be submitted after the hours have been worked (and not worked) and the salary has been paid to the employee.

HMRC will produce a calculator to help organisations to calculate how much they should pay their employees on JSS.

Making or amending a will

Most law firms can take instructions over the phone and have set up procedures for the signing of wills while the stay-at-home measures are in place.

If your constituent already has a solicitor, they’ll be able to tell your constituent what procedure their firm is using.

If your constituent needs to find a solicitor, visit our Find a Solicitor website and use the quick search option "wills and probate" to find a regulated and insured local solicitor.

Choosing a law firm that’s a member of the Law Society’s Wills and Inheritance Quality Scheme means the solicitor will be a specialist legal professional who meets our high standards for wills and probate services.

Under section 9 of the Wills Act 1837, the two witnesses must be present when the person signs their will. Legislation, via a statutory instrument, to allow remote witnessing of wills came into force on 28 September and has been made retrospective to 31 January 2020.

The measures will apply to England and Wales and remain in place until January 2022 however they can be shortened or extended if deemed necessary.

After this point, wills would return to being made with witnesses who are physically present. The new law amends the Wills Act 1837 to stipulate that where wills must be signed in the ‘presence’ of at least two witnesses, their presence can be either physical or virtual.

A will still needs to be signed by two witnesses who are not its beneficiaries and electronic signatures will not be permitted.

We are aware that law firms are finding ways to adapt in the current situation, and it’s worth contacting a solicitor to see what support and advice they can provide.

Getting legal advice

Yes, they are. Solicitors have continued to work throughout the coronavirus crisis, and are ready and able to provide the help and advice your constituents need.

However, law firms will be following government guidance and most of their staff will be working from home.

To find out if a solicitor is working, your constituent can:

  • check their website
  • call them

They will be able to tell your constituent what their working arrangements are and how they can help.

If your constituent needs to find a solicitor, visit our Find a Solicitor website to find contact details for a law firm in your local area. It has information on solicitors in England and Wales and lists what kind of work they do.

Look on their website for details or call them to check.

What can a solicitor do for your constituent?

Six in 10 adults (64%) based in England and Wales experienced a legal issue in the last four years, according to the 2019/20 Legal Needs Survey – the largest ever survey of legal needs in England and Wales. However, only 55% of people with a legal issue seek professional help.

Receiving professional advice makes a significant difference in helping to resolve legal issues fairly.

66% of people who receive professional help for a contentious legal issue say that they feel the outcome was fair to everyone concerned, while only 53% of those who did not receive professional help felt the same.

The expert legal advice that solicitors are able to provide is reflected in extremely strong client satisfaction.

Ninety percent of people who have used a solicitor report being satisfied with the service they received, compared to only 77% satisfaction for those who used an unregulated provider. Meanwhile 84% of those who used a solicitor say their solicitor provided value for money.

Many people, however, do not understand how and when they should take legal advice from a qualified solicitor or other regulated professional. That's why the Law Society works in partnership with the government and regulators to improve public legal education and enhance awareness of the availability of legal services and how they can be used.

Solicitors are highly qualified and well regulated.

Solicitors have a professional obligation to act in accordance with the very highest standards of honesty and integrity at all times, to uphold the rule of law and to act in their clients’ best interests. These are backed up by stringent regulatory requirements, as well as robust protections for clients in the unlikely case that something goes wrong.

The solicitor profession is regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Accordingly, every qualified solicitor must adhere to the SRA’s regulatory requirements at all times.

If a consumer feels that a solicitor has breached these requirements, they can report them to the SRA, who will be able to investigate the complaint and take appropriate action.

Most individual clients have a right to raise a complaint with the Legal Ombudsman if they feel that the service provided by their solicitor has been inadequate and they have been unable to resolve the complaint through the firm’s internal complaints process.

Solicitor firms are required to have valid professional indemnity insurance at all times, which provides cover for any financial losses clients might suffer as a result of unexpected events or mistakes.

The Legal Needs Survey revealed that 21% of people did not try to get help for legal issues from a professional adviser because they assumed it would be too expensive.

However, the majority (57%) of those who did get professional help did not have to pay, with 49% obtaining advice through a free service, 7% funded by an insurance company and another 7% funded by friends and family.

Meanwhile, while 92% of adults believe legal aid is a good thing, 85% of people with a legal issue who were eligible to receive legal aid mistakenly thought they were not eligible.

Key contacts and further resources

For more information

If there are other legal questions that you are facing in your case work and that you would like included in this guide, please get in touch.

Likewise, if there are any other legal issues that Law Society can support you in as you help your constituents, email parliamentary@lawsociety.org.uk.

Pro bono assistance for your constituents

LawWorks, part funded by the Law Society, is a charity that provides free legal advice for:

Pro bono assistance can also be found at:

Further resources

Heatmap showing which courts are operational

COVID-19 cybersecurity and fraud prevention hub

Mental health and wellbeing support