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Many people around the UK at present face confusion as to what they can and cannot do, what the Government is or is not doing (or planning), how various schemes will work and, generally, what it means for them.

One of the areas perhaps left in one of the most nebulous situations is that of the legal sector.  Confusion and chaos reigns supreme at present with legal professionals generally left entirely in the dark regarding key questions such as:

Are trials or other court hearings going ahead?

Do court deadlines, compliance with many of which is reliant upon other people not working at present, such as expert witnesses, remain live?

To what extent are courts able to process urgent court applications and court orders, particularly in relation to deadlines?

Will there be any grace period or relief when the crisis abates for steps that could not be taken during this period?

Information is piecemeal, ambiguous and sometimes contradictory. Up until a few days ago court staff were informing lawyers that trials were still proceeding unless they are told otherwise. Hardly a helpful response for trials that involve multiple witnesses and experts, accompanied by tens of thousands of pounds of expense and inconvenience. The answer to the question when will we know?  Wait to be told…

trials and other court hearing during corona crisis

Next there is the key workers list/criteria, which is apparently completely distinct from the list of those permitted to still go into work. Some areas of the legal sector appear to qualify as key workers but only in relation to an ongoing or imminent trial. What counts as “imminent”? If a lawyer needs to place their child in school at this stage to ensure they are ready for a court hearing (of which they will likely have no idea is proceeding or not until a day or two before) can that be classified as an imminent trial/court hearing?  If the trial is cancelled last minute has not the lawyer and their child then been unnecessarily placed in harm’s way in the interim?

Very little detail is provided in relation to so-called “essential” work either; at the time of writing there are only vague references to work essential to the functioning of the justice system and the language appears to suggest the focus is upon criminal law. Many lawyers are working from home but the practical reality is that many aspects of the job cannot be done by one person at home. Take preparation of a trial bundle: thousands of pages need to be located, scanned, ordered, paginated, copied then posted using specialist secure mail, a task impossible for a single solicitor at home.

Whilst there are rumours of various pacts and protocols being agreed between claimant and defendant firms, which will provide some assistance, it does little to tackle the central issue, being that this is a profession that revolves around strict deadlines and excessively harmful punishments for breaching such deadlines and so, for as long as there remains no guidance as to how the courts will approach that issue, lawyers will likely have no alternative than to place themselves and their loved ones in harm’s way.

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