Coronavirus (COVID-19) information for legal services

It’s important that our members can find the latest information easily and quickly, so we’re developing advice and support to help you through this difficult period.

This page gives guidance on:

We’ll also keep you updated on announcements from bodies such as the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), Legal Aid Agency (LAA) and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS).

July 2021: This guide is being reviewed and updated.

What we're being asked about

See our guidance on conveyancing:

The government issued advice on moving home during the coronavirus outbreak.

On 13 May, the government announced its plan to reopen the housing market as safely as possible. Read the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government guidance on home moving during the outbreak.

We worked with others across the sector to develop guidance that enables professionals to complete moves while maintaining safety.

We published joint sector-specific guidance for conveyancers on 29 May.

We also published a coronavirus and conveyancing Q&A in the Gazette.

In July, HM Land Registry (HMLR) responded to our and industry’s concerns by relaxing the requirements for execution of documents (by accepting the ‘Mercury’ signing approach for deeds) and ID verification initially on a temporary basis.

In addition to now accepting electronic signatures, HMLR stated in a blog that it’s ‘close’ to having draft practice guidance for qualified electronic signatures. The process has an embedded check and encrypted output which works to a regulated standard, so no witness is required. We’re continuing to work with HMLR in this space.

Property fraud rose sharply during the lockdown so as part of our response to the pandemic, we published our updated practice note on property title and registration fraud.

The chancellor announced in the summer budget that from 8 July 2020 to 31 March 2021, reduced rates of stamp duty land tax (SDLT) apply to residential properties on a temporary basis. We published an infographic illustrating how the SDLT holiday works.

On 25 September 2020, the Home Buying and Selling Pledge was released. We worked with the property and conveyancing industry through the Home Buying and Selling Group (HBSG) to produce a uniform industry pledge that can be provided to buyers and sellers in this unusual market.

View the Home Buying and Selling Pledge

A full national lockdown was effective in Wales for two weeks from 23 October 2020. This effectively closed down new transactions in the property market in Wales because estate agents were unable to hold property viewings and surveyors could not visit properties. Transactions that were already in train could continue if there was no alternative.

We encouraged firms to start thinking about how they will manage the likely boom of pent-up demand once the market opens up again. See the Welsh government’s FAQs on moving home.

Generally, local lockdowns were not preventing conveyancing transactions from going ahead although transactions were obviously impacted in different ways under different tiers of lockdown across England.

We recommend following government advice.

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

We've produced guidance on obtaining electronic signatures and the Legal Aid Agency has adopted contingency measures for obtaining client signatures remotely or waiving the requirement in some circumstances.

In relation to conveyancing, HM Land Registry (HMLR) is temporarily accepting the ‘Mercury’ signing approach for deeds. The aim is to reduce problems with post, paper and scanning as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

Our practice note on virtual signings sets out how ‘Mercury’ style signings operate. HMLR has updated Practice guide 8: execution of deeds with further information.

HMLR has also introduced some temporary changes to its requirements to make it easier to verify identity for land transactions. Full details on these changes, including the conditions that must be satisfied, are available in the new Practice Guide 67A.

These are all temporary measures to address the highly unusual current situation.

Read HMLR's announcement

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, cash flow and sustainability.

'Contingency measures' introduced by the LAA include:

  • suspending audit activity
  • relaxing rules for hardship payments
  • relaxing various contract requirements, including the obligation to keep offices open and the attendance requirements for duty solicitors under criminal contracts
  • amending rules to enable remote working, including allowing for remote signatures, acknowledgement of difficulties in producing means evidence and adjusting requirements for claims under the Family Advocacy Scheme

A number of these contingency measures have been extended until January 2021.

However, the LAA is gradually restarting certain compliance/audit activity from various dates. See the schedule of LAA process restarting after COVID-19 contingency.

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

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

The government published guidance on safe return to the office. The principles are:

  • each law firm will need to translate the guidance into specific actions, depending on its size, management and structure
  • the guidance does not supersede any legal obligations relating to health and safety, employment or equalities. Existing obligations must be complied with, including those related to individuals with protected characteristics
  • law firms should make every reasonable effort to enable working from home as a first option. No one is obliged to work in an unsafe work environment
  • if staff have to be in the office, they should observe social distancing of at least one metre

Read our practical framework for return to the office

Read our safe return to the office: toolkit for firms

The government has announced 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.

There are some conditions, including that the exemption will only apply if the reimbursement is made available to all of an employer’s employees generally on similar terms.

The measure is helpful because the existing exemption for home office equipment only applies where the employer directly provides it, not where the employee buys the equipment and the employer reimburses.

It will have effect from 11 June 2020 to 5 April 2021, but HMRC will exercise its collection and management discretion effectively to backdate this to 16 March 2020.

The SRA has provided guidance on maintaining confidentiality during remote working.

Keeping our members safe

We’ve been liaising with stakeholders such as the MoJ, Home Office, Prisons Service, HMCTS and the LAA to try to ensure that the best safety measures are in place for solicitors who have to attend clients in environments such as police stations, courts, prisons, hospitals and care homes.

See coronavirus support for our members’ wellbeing

As of 22 May there were 159 priority court and tribunal buildings open for essential face-to-face hearings. This represents 43% of the 371 crown, magistrates and family courts across England and Wales.

In addition, a further 115 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 phone hearings, progress cases without hearings and ensure continued access to justice.

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

Safety and security at court

HMCTS has now published an organisational risk assessment and assessment tool which will enable them to keep the safety of their buildings under regular review. This includes answers to questions our members have raised about cleanliness, social distancing and security, and in particular, the use of ‘hands off’ bag searches.

Individual court sites will also be required to complete risk assessments, which will be made available on request for local users, and will also be subject to regular review.

We encourage practitioners to report any poor practice they continue to see on the ground via this reporting form.

HMCTS’ Professional Access Scheme (digital ID cards)

Members have asked whether an ID card scheme for use on entry to court would mean they could avoid searches, reducing the risk of transmission.

HMCTS’ Professional Access Scheme, currently being piloted in some courts with the Bar Council, is designed to allow faster entry for professional users. It removes the need for security searches for those barristers who have an ID app on their smartphone.

The scheme pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic, and its complex technical and security requirements mean that it cannot be rolled out to all professional users in the short term. For these reasons, it is not a solution to our members’ concerns about safety in courts.

Our members’ safety requires that all court users are able to enter court without being subject to searches involving physical contact, which is why we have prioritised the need for ‘hands off’ searches in advising HMCTS on its risk assessment and policies.

HMCTS is in the process of appointing a new supplier of the technology to facilitate the next stage of the professional access scheme.

We’re keen to receive further details of this, and will be in a position to decide our approach to participation after that.

Which cases are going ahead

HMCTS is publishing daily updates on which cases are going ahead.

We’re pushing for policies and procedures to ensure that:

  • risks to our members are identified and they’re 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 ways of advising and taking instructions (for example by phone) are provided
  • rules are adjusted so that members are not penalised for complying with safety advice, social distancing requirements, etc.

Read the latest guidance from HMCTS on safety in courts

Read the latest guidance from the Prisons Service on safety in prisons

Safety in police stations (Gazette Article)

NPCC guidance and recommendations for the provision of police custody during the pandemic (PDF 554 KB)

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.

In general, we recommend following government advice.

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

We have produced guidance on obtaining electronic signatures.

The LAA has adopted contingency measures for obtaining client signatures remotely or waiving the requirement in some circumstances.

If a visit is necessary, it should be done by staff who are not:

  • a risk to the client
  • at high risk themselves

Both the client and the employee will need to agree to the meeting despite any risk.

If you cannot assist, an urgent referral to another solicitor may be appropriate.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice is to avoid non-essential travel.

Some countries have stopped UK citizens and people who have 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

Employee rights

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.

The UK government announced COVID-19 restrictions for workplaces in September 2020. 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.

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

The government's free workplace testing kits are now available to all organisations, including those with fewer than 50 employees.

If your firm is interested in getting government support to provide free workplace testing kits, you must register your interest by Wednesday 31 March.

The testing kits are made up of rapid lateral flow tests to test your employees twice a week in the workplace.

The service is currently only available to organisations in England.

Register your interest through the online portal

The portal provides information to help organisations plan and deliver their testing programme, along with promotional materials.

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.

There’s specific guidance for those showing symptoms.

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.

Work gatherings are exempt from the gatherings limit of six.

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.

Read the government guidance on face coverings

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.

Read the government guidance on going to a court or tribunal

Read the government guidance on deciding if a video hearing is suitable

Read the government guidance on witnesses becoming unwell or needing to self-isolate

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.

The government guidance states that cafes, including workplace canteens, should display the NHS QR poster.

Business support

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 opt-in process is open from 23 February 2021 up to and including 21 June 2021.

Find out more about VAT deferral

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.

See more information on the UK government's business support packages

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. 

Find out more about the grant extension

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.

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.

In March 2020, HMRC closed the stamp presses and introduced an alternative electronic process for dealing with stock transfer forms and other relevant documents, initially on a temporary basis.

The idea is that this process provides for a new method of stamping, under which the transfer instrument is duly stamped by the issue of a confirmation letter.

The change did not affect stamp duty land tax.

In June 2021, HMRC announced that the stamp presses are closing permanently and that the temporary process is being put on a permanent footing.

HMRC guidance also now states that where stamp duty has been paid on a stock transfer form, using the electronic process in place since March 2020, that instrument is duly stamped for all purposes.

HMRC states that you do not need to resubmit any documents to be stamped under the previous physical stamping system.

Read more in HMRC’s Stamp Taxes on Shares Manual and in our article on the closure of the stamp presses.

The closure of courts and tribunals and cancellation of sitting days due to COVID-19 has financially impacted many fee-paid judicial office holders, including some solicitors in fee-paid judicial roles.

We've had ongoing discussions with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to ensure financial relief is offered to judicial office holders in need.

The MoJ has announced a COVID-19 hardship scheme for fee-paid judicial office holders who are facing genuine financial hardship.

Regulatory compliance

We’re engaging with stakeholder organisations such as the Legal Services Board, the SRA, the Legal Ombudsman and the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) for guidance to help our members.

The SRA has stated it “expects solicitors and firms to continue to meet the high standards the public expect. This means they must do everything they reasonably can to comply with our rules, and follow our Principles. This includes serving the best interests of their clients and upholding the rule of law.”

It expects firms to have appropriate contingency plans in place but recognises the exceptional circumstances firms are operating under now as well as in the coming months.

The SRA says it will be pragmatic and take a proportionate approach to regulating the profession, including in its approach to enforcement. If it receives complaints, it would take into account mitigating circumstances, as set out in its enforcement strategy. It states that “This includes focusing on serious misconduct, and clearly distinguishing between people who are trying to do the right thing, and those who are not.”

The SRA recommends that if you face compliance difficulties linked to the coronavirus crisis, you should clearly record the approach you have taken.

See the SRA’s coronavirus guidance

If you’re unable to provide the services required by your client due to the coronavirus you should:

  • notify your client as soon as reasonably practical
  • suggest they try another solicitor (you could suggest three possible options or give them a link to the Law Society’s Find a Solicitor website)
  • seek a deferral or ask a colleague to step in if it’s a transactional matter due to complete shortly

Make sure your out of office response for emails is up to date. It’s important your client does not lose out because they’re waiting for you to respond.

Solicitors and firms should act in compliance with the SRA Standards and Regulations even if they encounter financial difficulty.

That means, among other things, that solicitors and firms must always act with integrity and they must inform the SRA personally if they are in an actual or potential insolvency situation.

Read the SRA's guidance on this issue

The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) has published guidance for legal service providers on its approach when considering complaints during the COVID 19 pandemic.

Firms may have difficulty responding to first-tier complaints from clients within the usual eight-week timeframe. For example, there may be delays if staff cannot access files or are on sick leave.

If a complaint is at the first-tier stage, and you cannot respond within the timeframe, it’s important to let the complainant know so that they do not think you are ignoring their complaint.

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

Firms should consider now how they could demonstrate the background and context in which they were operating in the current crisis for any possible future complaint. This could include the available resources, any technical challenges as well as any steps taken to mitigate the impact on their clients.

It is important to reference your current working environment in correspondence with clients, in file notes, on your website and/or in your email footnotes. While this may appear burdensome now, it will be time well spent if a complaint is made in the future.

You should also keep an audit trail of any changes made, for example, to your website, so that there is a clear trail of what prospective and existing clients were told about any reduced service at any point in time.

For example, complaints about conveyancing matters or the validity of a will may not be raised until several years later. At that time people may not fully appreciate the severity of the crisis or restrictions you are currently working in. It is therefore important that you make proper reference to the context of the crisis and the conditions your firm was operating under. You can document this in any letters, file notes or telephone attendance notes where the current situation is having an impact.

If you take on new clients, for instance, and you are aware that there will be delays to the matter beyond your control due to the crisis, you could refer to these in the client care letter. 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.

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.

If the complaint is already with LeO and you’re having difficulty responding to LeO, for example if your archive service provider cannot send the files to you because of the COVID-19 crisis, it will be important for LeO to keep the complainant updated about the delay in progressing their complaint. It’s therefore 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.

Prospective clients can raise complaints with LeO for ‘unreasonable refusal of service’. You may decline to take instructions from a prospective client if your firm is unable to take on a new retainer due to the current difficult circumstance. We would recommend that you document the conversation and the reasons for refusal, in case a complaint is later raised.

Read the SRA guidance on this issue

In addition to the SRA’s guidance we also suggest putting your operating arrangements on your website, so that potential customers are informed.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal's (SDT) offices and courtrooms at Gate House are currently closed due to the COVID-19 situation. The most up to date information can be found on the SDT website

Hearings are taking place remotely unless otherwise notified. Parties and witnesses should not attend Gate House unless they have been specifically asked to do so by a member of SDT staff.

Members of the press and public should not attend Gate House under any circumstances.

Any member of the press or public who wishes to virtually attend a hearing which is taking place either as a fully remote hearing or with the parties present in Gate House should contact the SDT at enquiries@solicitorsdt.com. The SDT will provide a link to access the hearing on Zoom.

Background

In response to the coronavirus outbreak in spring 2020, the SDT started conducting the majority of its hearings remotely and since September has been listing a small number of ‘hybrid hearings' at its offices. A hybrid hearing is one at which some participants attend in person and some attend via a video platform.

It issued an amended Practice Direction on Remote and Hybrid Hearings on 28 August 2020.

If you need to contact the SDT to send documents or to make or discuss an application or forthcoming hearing, email enquiries@solicitorsdt.com.

If your query cannot be dealt with by email and you need to speak to someone, you can call the SDT on 0207 329 4808.

There will be a delay in the SDT receiving any postal items and everything should be sent by email if possible. The SDT is not able to receive items sent by courier and no longer has a DX service.

Practice issues

The government has announced a change to allow video witnessing of wills.

Read our guidance on video-witnessing wills

These changes, introduced via a statutory instrument, came into force on 28 September 2020 and will allow for wills witnessed in such a way to be deemed legal, as long as the quality of the sound and video is sufficient to see and hear what is happening at the time.

It was not previously allowed to witness a will via video as a witness was required to be physically present.

There will be no change to the requirement for two witnesses.

The measures are backdated to 31 January 2020, the date of the first confirmed coronavirus case in the UK, and will be in force for two years, in line with other coronavirus legislation.

Read the statutory instrument and explanatory memorandum

The SRA has also updated its guidance for solicitors who practise in this area following our discussions with them.

In addition to following the SRA’s guidance, we suggest putting your operating arrangements on your website, so that potential customers will know what to expect when they enquire.

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. The Practice Direction also 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.

See the civil procedure rules on Justice.gov.uk

It was expected that various court forms containing a Statement of Truth would be updated on 6 April 2020 to reflect new wording as set out in the Civil Procedure Rules 113th Practice Direction Update. Due to the coronavirus outbreak these forms have not been updated and existing prescribed forms can continue to be used.

Civil Procedure Rule 4(2) and Practice Direction paragraph 1.7 allow for forms to be modified as circumstances require, therefore users can modify editable versions of forms to reflect the new Statement of Truth wording.

Uneditable versions of forms that have not yet been updated with the new Statement of Truth wording can continue to be used until a revised prescribed form is issued.

Education and trainees

If you’re currently training with a firm you should find out how this situation may affect their workforce planning for the next year.

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

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

The SRA states that trainee solicitors are common law apprentices and as such, they cannot be made redundant as a usual employee can.

The SRA’s Authorised Training Provider information pack (2019 regulations) has the following to say on this:

“Termination of a training period

Trainees are apprentices. Consequently, you may only bring an apprenticeship to an end if:


  1. you and the trainee agree
  2. the training contract is conditional on the trainee passing any of the academic stages of qualification or the LPC, and they do not pass
  3. the trainee's conduct is unacceptable
  4. the trainee is incapable of meeting the Practice Skills Standards; or
  5. the training establishment business closes or changes so much that it is not possible to properly train the trainee.”

Changes to processes

In September 2020, 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

Keep up to date with how the current situation is affecting your sector and our latest support by:

Maximise your Law Society membership with My LS