So, as within all areas of society, coronavirus is having a large impact on various areas of law. Even in the last 24 hours, there have been further developments which affect Solicitors and the general public alike, which include:
Family Law: Unfortunately, there are reports that applications for divorce are likely to rise over coming weeks as couples spend more time together, whether due to self-isolation, working from home together or both. The peak times for divorce petitions are September and January and, crucially, this is due to the preceding summer holidays and Christmas periods being the time when couples typically spend the most continuous time with the other. During this stressful time indoors, it may well be that more relationships reach boiling point without escape by way of usual routines.
Employment Law: A joint announcement has been made by the joint Presidents of Employment Tribunals in relation to upcoming Hearings and case management. Put simply, more Preliminary Hearings (or, to use their more common name, Case Management Hearings) are likely to take place by telephone (rather than in the Tribunal building), more applications for postponements or more flexible ways of holding Hearings are expected and less Judges and Tribunal staff (not to mention witnesses and Solicitors) are expected to be fit to attend face-to-face Hearings due to Governmental guidance and their own self-isolation. The basic message to all parties is to try and work together to ensure flexibility can see at least some Hearings (particularly Preliminary Hearings) take place by phone, rather than simply ‘pausing’ all Tribunal work.
Civil courts: The Crown Court has announced that juries should sit for no longer than three days within criminal cases, however, this is likely to be a sticking plaster that will soon be of no real relevance if the COVID-19 outbreak escalates given the obvious impact on Judges, witnesses, court staff and lawyers alike.
Interestingly, the Law Society Gazette reports that a family judge has imposed emergency measures in Oxfordshire and Berkshire and told lawyers to stay at home and avoid the courts and, instead, that all suitable hearings should be conducted via video link, Skype or telephone. Further, the judge has reportedly advised that attendance within court buildings should be ‘kept to a minimum’ and evidence given remotely. This being in direct contrast to the Government’s claims, and slightly daft claims in all honesty, that courts will continue to ‘operate normally’.
I can’t see courts (or Tribunals) operating in any ‘normal’ way for quite a time to come and can see the majority of Hearings either being heard by telephone or video link or, alternatively, suspended pending availability of the court buildings (which may well be closed in function, if not literally, in the near future).
Access to legal services: Fortunately, legal advice remains available to the general public from law firms, including here at CLB. Most law firms have ‘open’ offices but, in reality, where possible, Solicitors are following Government advice and working remotely (which is more than possible in this digital world). Aside from face-to-face advisory meetings becoming telephone or Skype meetings, not too much has changed and, in fact, within Employment Law, legal advice for employers and employees alike is even more crucial during these unprecedented times.
As above, the main shift within the legal sector is the provision of advice by telephone or Skype (which, in reality, was the method by which around 33% of my meetings with employers and employees were held prior to the coronavirus outbreak) and we’re seeing increased requests for legal advice by concerned businesses and staff alike.
I hope everyone stays safe and well during this challenging time.