IoD North West member, Simon Williams, is the Managing Partner at Jolliffes solicitors in Chester. His firm have teamed up to write an insightful piece on how the legal industry is changing due to the Coronavirus crisis. Here’s what Jolliffes think...
It’s hard to imagine in the modern era, but humanity has probably never been on such a steep learning curve as this – one that effortlessly catapults evolution through our letterboxes and in the blink of an eye. We have had to make huge changes to the way we live, work, eat, sleep, exercise and socialise and with little or no warning or even choice.
As well as the truly terrible things it has caused, the Covid-19 virus (Covid) has undoubtedly accelerated the future. Technology has led many of the changes. Meetings are now all virtual (or socially distanced), people are realising they can work efficiently and effectively from home, relationships are flourishing or failing, we’re rediscovering a love of cooking, we’re shopping online more and working out in the living room…..the dogs aren’t quite sure what’s going on….
As a law firm, we’ve also noticed a huge change in things from a legal angle. Different areas of law (and their delivery) have changed already and may change forever. Here’s our musings…
Buying and Selling Property
Anyone who was thinking of buying or selling property before the pandemic hit will be wondering how the market is going to look, as we all figure out what the “new normal” is after Covid-19. Economists predict that property prices will fall, but also predict they’ll recover back to 2019 levels by 2022.
In terms of selling or buying a home, we’re seeing the whole process being made virtual. You can instruct agents and solicitors remotely, as well as take a virtual tour of a property on your smartphone. We won’t be surprised to see this continue.
Many businesses will be looking to cut commercial rent as one of their significant overheads. Many are questioning if they need the same amount of office space as previously now that adjustments have been made to allow staff to work remotely from home. Businesses may be considering how they can securely extract themselves from some or all of their leases without incurring additional or unexpected expenditure, or how they can utilise differently the space that they occupy as they diversify their businesses. Relationships between landlords and tenants will either become stronger with closer business ties or could worsen due to competing needs.
The outbreak of coronavirus (Covid-19) has left many of our client’s wondering what will happen to their court case. On 17.03.2020, the Lord Chief Justice, who is Head of the Judiciary and President of the Courts of England and Wales, acknowledged that it will not be ‘business as usual’ for the courts during the Covid-19 outbreak and highlighted the importance of ensuring that the administration of justice does not grind to a halt.
The current position is that in an effort to maintain access to justice and minimise disruption, court hearings will go ahead but as far as possible these will be dealt with remotely either via audio or video technology. Ultimately, how a hearing will be conducted is at the discretion of the judge. Where hearings are required to take place in person, HM Courts & Tribunal Services have identified a number of ‘priority courts’ which will remain open to hear essential face-to-face hearings.
The outbreak has also seen parties enter into disputes over contractual agreements. This has seen a rise in the attempted use of the force majeure clause and doctrines such as ‘frustration’, in circumstances where parties are trying to either get out of their contractual obligations (i.e. a service provider) or enforce them (i.e. customer). Force majeure clauses are contractual clauses which alter parties' obligations and/or liabilities under a contract when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond their control prevents one or all of them from fulfilling those obligations. Frustration of a contract can set it aside where an unforeseen event either renders contractual obligations impossible, or radically changes the party’s principle purpose for entering into the contract.
The impacts on business have been substantial. We may in fact see a completely different landscape emerge from this crisis. In the last few weeks clients have asked us to deliver training in certain areas of the law virtually, as opposed to face to face meetings in the boardroom, something that didn’t really happen that much in the past.
A few years ago, we saw the birth of Brexit clauses within contracts, but what about a Covid clause? A lot of well drafted force majeure clauses already refer to a ‘pandemic’, but we would recommend that businesses ask their legal advisers to check their terms and conditions of sale and purchase to ensure they offer the best possible protection. This goes for all commercial contracts though, including supply agreements, distribution agreements and service provider contracts.
In March we saw a number of corporate deals go on hold. When the wheels start turning again in due course, banks may want new valuations carrying out (which could affect borrowing facilities) and updated due diligence exercises performed. Some deals of course, may not resurface at all in the aftermath of Covid-19. Given the current crisis, many business owners may be willing to sell for less than they were originally asking for as this time has made them appreciate what is truly important to them.
Family Life at best can be a challenge but add to the mix a lockdown with your nearest and possibly not so dearest, money worries and child care issues…..and this could prove to be a tricky situation. COVID-19 has meant that some relationships already under strain have been tested further. Once lockdown has eased we anticipate, sadly, a huge number of new enquiries to our family department. We are, in essence, facing the breakdown of love in a desperately different climate. We also anticipate that once the new normality returns some of the Court work may continue to be dealt with remotely.
Wills and Inheritance Matters
Currently, for a will to be valid, it must be signed by two witnesses present at the same time, and the witnesses must be independent and not related to the person to whom the will applies. Under current social distancing measures, especially for those in isolation at home or in hospital, it is almost impossible to adhere to the rules. The Ministry of Justice is now looking at a temporary relaxation in the rules, which could involve reducing the number of witnesses required, or possibly accepting other solutions, such as video witnessing. We would not be surprised to see these rules made permanent after lockdown, giving people the additional option.
The above is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list, just a snippet into some of the changes we may see in the coming weeks, months and years. The legal industry needed a ‘kick up the backside’ and maybe, just maybe, this will help send it in the right direction.
The ‘Rule of Law’ remains strong and proud, but day by day it’s moving into the cloud. Law, but not as we know it.
Thanks for tuning in,