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Coronavirus (COVID-19) information for legal services
Before COVID-19, the answer to this question would be yes.
Most employment contracts require a person to be available for work at a specific location and during a certain time. If you refuse to do as instructed, then you’re breaching your employment contract and face the possibility of being dismissed.
However, these are not normal times. Workspaces carry risk and the right safeguards and policies need to be in place before re-opening.
The government has also said that everyone in England who can work effectively from home must do so. This is part of the national lockdown effort to contain the virus.
In September 2020, the UK government announced new COVID-19 restrictions. For legal services, this means:
- all law firms and organisations should allow their staff to work from home if they can do so effectively
- if essential staff members are required in the office, then the firm must make sure it's a COVID-19 secure workplace – read our practical framework on return to the office
- if a staff member or anyone in their household currently has symptoms of coronavirus, they must not go to work
If you’re asked to go back to the office, you're entitled to ask questions about these safeguards and policies.
During the national lockdown in England, it's illegal to leave your home for work purposes unless it's not reasonably possible to work from home.
If you think it's reasonably possible to work from home then you should discuss this with your manager.
Employers' duty of care towards employees
The first thing you should do if you're not happy about returning to the office is to identify your concerns and let your manager know about them. For example:
- are you concerned about taking public transport to get to work?
- are you likely to struggle with childcare or caring commitments?
- are you worried about having to share an open plan office with a number of colleagues?
Employers have a duty of care towards those they employ – to look after both their physical and mental health.
They also have to abide by a variety of health and safety standards, such as ensuring that sanitation measures are in place, and that there are enough first aiders and fire wardens on site.
Employers have a duty to comply with equalities legislation and not discriminate against those who have protected characteristics, such as a disability.
All of this means that employers need to consider how to alleviate any concerns you raise about your health and/or your ability to do your job.
Ask for the office risk assessment and details of how the risks will be mitigated.
Under the government's COVID-19 return to the office guidance, all businesses have a duty to conduct a COVID-19 risk assessment.
Staff groups should be consulted about the risk assessment and, if the business has more than 50 employees, it should be published on the organisation’s website.
Ask your employer for a copy of the risk assessment and discuss it with your manager.
If you're unsure whether the workplace is safe, ask your employer to explain the measures they're implementing to bring the risks down to an acceptable level.
Making a flexible working request
If you want to work in a way that's different from the one stated in your contract, ask your manager about whether this is possible.
All employees have the legal right to request a new working arrangement. This is known as a flexible working request. You do not need to have a specific or special reason to do so.
Most organisations will have a specific process for dealing with such requests as legally they’re required to approach the requests in a “reasonable manner”.
When making such a request, give your reasons for doing so and any evidence that shows how your new way of working will not impact on your performance. This will help your employer to consider the request and, if they do not agree with what you're asking for, maybe suggest a compromise.
For more information on how employment law and health and safety regulations apply to issues created by coronavirus, read our guidance on best work systems.
It’s an offence for an employer to knowingly permit a worker (including an agency worker) to attend any place other than where the individual is self-isolating.
It’s now an employer’s responsibility to stop such workers from visiting a workplace. The worker can still work from home.
Any employer who fails to do so could face a fine, starting at £1,000.
If staff are not willing to go to the office, we urge firms and organisations to take socially responsible decisions and listen to the concerns of their staff.
Employers and employees should come to a pragmatic agreement about their working arrangements.
COVID-19 secure workplace
There are exceptions where groups can be larger than six people, including:
- for work or the provision of voluntary or charitable services
- fulfilling a legal obligation – such as attending court or jury service
Formal shielding advice is currently paused nationally – check any local variations.
This means you can continue to go to work as long as the workplace is COVID-19 secure but you should carry on working from home wherever possible.
Anyone with symptoms of coronavirus should not attend work. They should immediately self-isolate at home and get a test. Their household members should self-isolate too.
It’s now a legal obligation to inform your employer if you’re self-isolating. Failure to do so could lead to a fine and a criminal record.
The Health and Safety Executive and local authorities are responsible for enforcing the government’s guidance on COVID-19 secure workplaces.
If these bodies identify employers who are not taking action to comply (for example, not completing a new risk assessment taking account of the risk of COVID-19, or taking insufficient measures in response), they’ll consider a range of actions to improve control of workplace risks.
This includes giving specific advice to a business, or issuing an improvement notice, which a business must respond to in a fixed time, or a prohibition notice.
Failure to comply is a criminal offence, which can lead to fines or imprisonment for up to two years. This means the COVID-19 secure guidelines can be legally enforced indirectly, through improvement and prohibition notices.
If you’re still concerned that your employer is not taking all practical steps to promote social distancing then you can report this to the local authority or the Health and Safety Executive.
The use of face coverings is only mandatory for members of the public visiting high street solicitors.
There are exemptions for certain categories of people.
The regulations provide a specific exception to the requirement to remain in self-isolation to fulfil a legal obligation: for example, to attend court or participate in legal proceedings.
However, the government has clarified that:
- everyone who works in or uses courts and tribunals is expected to observe quarantine unless explicitly required to attend court
- parties are expected to notify the court of any prior requirement to quarantine ahead of any hearings, so that the court can consider rescheduling the hearing or allowing parties to participate remotely
We’re concerned about this exemption which we’ve raised with the courts minister. Allowing lawyers to break quarantine to attend hearings will increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission and pose a significant danger to court users, including the most vulnerable.
We urge anybody in this situation to be cautious and consider fully the potential health implications if they were to break their self-isolation period to attend in person.
Offices, including law firms, are not required to display the NHS QR poster unless:
- there’s a high number of external visitors
- workers cannot easily be identified or notified (for example, by email) if there was a potential outbreak linked to the site
However, if your firm or organisation has indoor space where people congregate (such as a busy reception area) you're encouraged to create a QR code poster for the entrance to that venue.
If necessary, business meetings at the office can go ahead.
These meetings fall under the exception where people from different households can gather in groups larger than six for work – see the government guidance on local COVID alert level: high
The guidance provides: “There is no limit to the group size when you are meeting or gathering for work purposes, but workplaces should be set up to meet the COVID-secure guidelines.”
You should note:
- the general tier 2 and 3 guidance that office workers who can work effectively from home should do so
- the workplace should be COVID-secure, following social distancing – follow our practical framework on returning to the office
- workplaces are encouraged to minimise face to face meetings and use video conferencing or phone wherever possible
Use the government checker tool to find out the support available for your business.
The Ministry of Justice 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 Legal Aid Agency for legal firms
- aligning legal aid fees for First-tier Tribunal immigration and asylum appeals with HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s move to an online system for these cases
- a temporary tax exemption for employer-reimbursed expenses to cover the cost of home office equipment (such as a laptop, a desk or necessary computer accessories) deemed necessary for an employee to work at home due to COVID-19
A package of support measures for businesses and individuals affected by COVID-19 is still in place.
Although the furlough scheme will come to an end at in October, a new Job Support Scheme will be in place from 1 November to partly fund viable jobs in businesses facing lower demand over the winter months due to COVID-19.
The scheme will run for six months and all small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will be eligible.
Large businesses will be required to demonstrate that their business has been adversely affected by COVID-19, and the government expects that large employers will not be making capital distributions (such as dividends) while using the scheme.
The government gave businesses the option to defer quarterly and monthly VAT payments for the periods ending in February, March and April, as well as payments on account and annual accounting advance payments due between 20 March and 30 June 2020.
Taxpayers were originally given until the end of the 2020/21 tax year to pay any accumulated liabilities.
Under the government’s subsequent Winter Economy Plan, affected businesses are given the option of spreading the repayment of the deferred VAT due by making smaller payments up to the end of March 2022, interest free. Businesses will need to opt in. The government has stated that HMRC will put in place an opt-in process in early 2021.
Other measures include:
- income tax payments due in July 2020 under self-assessment to be deferred to January 2021 (with the possibility of a longer-term repayment schedule until January 2022 if agreed with HMRC under the Enhanced Time to Pay scheme announced in the government’s Winter Economy Plan)
- an extension of the interest-free period for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) up to 12 months
- the introduction of the Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS) which helps small and medium sized businesses to borrow up to £50,000 (now with a new Pay as You Grow repayment scheme for these loans as announced in the government’s Winter Economy Plan)
- the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CLBILS), which supports businesses with an annual turnover of over £45m
- the COVID-19 Corporate Financing Facility under which the Bank of England helps large businesses through purchase of their short-term debt
In a statement on 17 December 2020, the chancellor announced that businesses will be given until the end of March 2021 to access BBLS, CBILS and CLBILS loans.
The government has also announced that more support will be available beyond March, through a successor loan scheme.
More details of that scheme are expected in due course and the government is expected to provide a further update on wider COVID-19 economic support at the Budget on 3 March 2021.
The chancellor announced an extension of the self-employed grant on similar terms as the new Job Support Scheme.
The grant will be limited to self-employed individuals who are currently eligible for the existing Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (and are actively continuing to trade but are facing reduced demand due to COVID-19).
The scheme will last for six months, from November 2020 to April 2021.
This means that only members whose profits are below £2,500 a month will be eligible for the scheme.
The extension will be in the form of two grants.
The first grant will cover a three-month period from the start of November until the end of January.
This initial grant will cover 20% of average monthly trading profits, paid out in a single instalment covering 3 months’ worth of profits, and capped at £1,875 in total.
The second grant will cover a three-month period from the start of February until the end of April. The government will review the level of the second grant and set this in due course.
There will be more time to pay for self-assessed income tax payers, who can now extend their outstanding tax bill over 12 months from January.
COVID-19 loan scams and frauds are becoming widespread and law firms should be on alert. There have been reports of:
- bogus companies being set up for the purpose of applying for loans with multiple lenders
- identity theft for the purposes of opening bogus companies – once set up, applications from company directors for COVID-19 loans are made
- business impersonation (especially requests for employees to update their bank details)
- phishing emails and letters (including Zoom and Microsoft 365)
- fraudulent coronavirus insurance adverts
- fake fines claiming an individual has broken lockdown rules
- fraudulent pre-paid funeral plans
Visit our COVID-19 cyber awareness hub to protect yourself, your clients and your organisation.
Changes to processes
In September, the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) updated users on concerns relating to trade mark registration certificates and the timings of examination of trade mark applications.
The IPO confirmed that 27,000 trade mark applications that were unopposed and pending registration by the end of interrupted days (put in place to suspend deadlines due to COVID-19) had proceeded to registration.
Other applications were being dealt with in order of receipt, as quickly as possible.
Following concerns and queries from users that the IPO’s emailed trade mark registration certificates did not conform to the usual format, the IPO reiterated that the emailed format certificates are fully valid registration certificates and meet legal requirements for documents required in support of a priority claim in another country or jurisdiction.
The IPO is working on a new format that will better meet the needs of users.
Since July, the IPO has received 25% above the usual and forecast demand of trade mark applications, which, as a result, means it’s taking longer for the IPO to examine applications.
It’s now taking between 20 to 30 working days to issue examination reports.
Applicants and representatives are encouraged not to call the IPO for status updates before that time has passed.
Stay up to date and in touch
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