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Coronavirus (COVID-19) information for members
This is an extremely fast-moving situation and the profession is facing unprecedented challenges.
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.
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) as soon as we get them. See also our coronavirus (COVID-19) information for legal services.
As well as providing the updates and advice below, we're also influencing government, regulators and other stakeholders on behalf of our members.
If you have any questions or issues, contact us.
What we're currently being asked about
See our guidance on conveyancing:
- Coronavirus (COVID-19) and residential conveyancing transactions
- Coronavirus (COVID-19): Guidance to conveyancers advising clients on house moves
- Coronavirus (COVID-19): Guidance for using the variation agreement
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, 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.
A full national lockdown will be effective in Wales for two weeks from 23 October. This will effectively close down new transactions in the property market in Wales because estate agents are unable to hold property viewings and surveyors cannot visit properties. Transactions that are already in train can continue if there is no alternative.
We encourage 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 are not preventing conveyancing transactions from going ahead although transactions will obviously be 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Supporting your business
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
- 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
Job Support Scheme
The government has announced a package of support measures for businesses and individuals affected by COVID-19, which includes a Job Support Scheme.
The Job Support Scheme is designed to protect viable jobs in businesses that are facing lower demand over the winter months due to COVID-19, to help keep their employees attached to the workforce. The scheme will open on 1 November 2020 and run for six months.
Firms that use the scheme will continue to pay their employee for time worked, and they must work a minimum of 20% of their normal hours, but the cost of hours not worked will be split between the employer, the government (through wage support) and the employee (through a wage reduction), and the employee will keep their job.
The government will pay 61% of hours not worked up to £1,541.75 per month, with the employer also contributing 5%, capped at £125 per month. The cap is based on matching a monthly salary of £3,125. This will ensure employees earn a minimum of 73% of their normal wages, where the government contribution has not been capped. Employers can top up employees' wages above the 5% contribution at their own discretion.
Employers using the Job Support Scheme will also be able to claim the Job Retention Bonus if they meet the eligibility criteria. This is worth £1,000 per employee who was furloughed between March and October.
Organisations required by government to close their premises due to local or national coronavirus restrictions will be able to claim two thirds of their employees’ salaries, up to a maximum of £2,100 per month, without having to make any contribution themselves.
At the moment, businesses most likely to be asked to close are:
- pub and bars
- casinos and betting shops
- entertainment centres
There may be local variations to this list, though it is unlikely that office-based businesses will be included unless the country reverts back to a full national lockdown.
The government will also give 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. No application is needed.
Businesses will not need to make these VAT payments during this period. HMRC will not charge interest or penalties on any amount deferred. Taxpayers will be given until the end of the 2020/21 tax year to pay any accumulated liabilities.
Other measures include:
- income tax payments due in July 2020 under self-assessment to be deferred to January 2021
- an extension of the interest-free period for Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme up to 12 months
- the Bounce Back Loan Scheme which helps small and medium sized businesses to borrow up to £50,000
- the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme 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
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:
- UK government – stay at home guidance
- UK government – guidance for employees, employers and businesses
If you're concerned about the wellbeing of your staff, you can contact your local Public Health England Health Protection Team.
HMRC has temporarily closed the stamp presses.
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 email@example.com.
If you've 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.
Further HMRC guidance published on 27 March covers how these new procedures will apply to various situations including:
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.
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.
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.
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.
In addition to the SRA’s guidance we also suggest putting your operating arrangements on your website, so that potential customers are informed.
The SDT offices are closed during the latest lockdown period commencing 5 November 2020.
The SDT has taken the decision not to offer hybrid hearings until the new year and you should not travel to the Tribunal until further notice. Hearings that can proceed remotely will still continue to do so. There’s more information on the SDT website.
In response to the coronavirus outbreak the SDT had commenced 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.
Due to the latest lockdown measures the Tribunal is no longer able to offer this and it hopes to resume hybrid hearings from January 2021.
If you need to contact the SDT about an application, an upcoming hearing or sending documents, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The SDT cannot receive post or DX communications.
Paper-based applications such as a variation of directions can still be progressed. These should be sent to email@example.com.
The government has announced a change to allow video witnessing of 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.
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.
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 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:
- you and the trainee agree
- the training contract is conditional on the trainee passing any of the academic stages of qualification or the LPC, and they do not pass
- the trainee's conduct is unacceptable
- the trainee is incapable of meeting the Practice Skills Standards; or
- the training establishment business closes or changes so much that it is not possible to properly train the trainee.”
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:
- following us on Twitter
- subscribing to our Gazette Daily News Update
- checking the latest coronavirus news from the Gazette
- subscribing to our weekly Professional Update email newsletter
Firms should also sign up to receive government email alerts to ensure they are acting on the latest information.
Redirecting your weekly Gazette magazine
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.