The end of COVID measures

Law firms are preparing for their staff members coming back to the office this month after the prime minister’s announcement that the end of social distancing is – finally – upon us.

From July 19 all our coronavirus restrictions will be removed. And the so-called ‘Freedom Day’ takes us a massive step closer to the return of what we would call normality.

But how will law firms operate when we can once again mingle freely?

Subject to a final review of the data, step four of Boris Johnson’s unlocking ‘roadmap’ will now take place on Monday, four weeks after the original plan to ease restrictions on June 21. The delay has allowed time for the vaccination programme to reach more UK residents amid concerns that cases of coronavirus were on the increase.

The lifting of restrictions means face masks will no longer be a legal requirement in shops and in public spaces. Social distancing and the one-metre rule is no more. The limit of social gathering also goes, with the so-called ‘rule of six’ at an end.

Workplaces will be allowed to operate at full capacity, with the guidance that working from home wherever possible is ending.

What effect the unlocking will have on cases of coronavirus is yet to be seen. And much uncertainty remains on how the country will cope with ‘the new normal’ and what effect the end of restrictions will have on COVID cases and deaths.

Many city-centre law firms had been planning to work at half capacity in the initial weeks of restriction-free living, and the four-week delay in lifting COVID measures will have done little, if anything, to change that.

Cause for concern

What is unclear, and is a cause for concern among those in the legal industry, is what restrictions will apply to England and Wales’ courtrooms, which have kept open as much as possible throughout the health crisis. Despite the court service’s best efforts, there is a 45 per cent rise in crown court cases, that’s an increase of almost 60,000.

The average waiting time for a case to be heard in crown court has, unsurprisingly, also spiked at 363 days.

Masks have been mandatory in courtrooms and social distancing measures have been strictly adhered to by jurors.

It is believed these will not be required from next week. Plexiglass screens have been installed in courtrooms up and down the country and in addition to one-way systems and reduced seating capacities, rigorous cleaning regimes have been employed so that the HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) could keep the judicial process going.

What is unknown is what guidance the government will give the courts service but Johnson’s reliance on “the innate good sense of the British people” means the continued use of face coverings in courtrooms will most likely be a recommendation, rather than a requirement. The notion that ‘people’s personal judgement’ is key to our future chances is not especially confidence-inspiring. Nor is the ongoing lack of clarity on what is law and what is merely guidance on voluntary measures.

In December, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland announced an £83m investment in making courts COVID-secure, and HMCTS claims the measures put in place were endorsed by public health experts, and that coronavirus cases involving court attendees followed the national trend.

Lords’ committee findings

During the early stages of the pandemic the House of Lords Constitution Committee began an inquiry into the implications of COVID for the courts. Its findings, published in March, revealed that:

  • Reduced funding for the justice system meant that courts and tribunals were already in a vulnerable condition ahead of the crisis.
  • The need for remote hearings had an uneven impact across the courts service. While senior courts adapted reasonably well, lower courts – dealing with the majority of cases – experienced more difficulties.
  • Operational changes that were brought in to combat the pandemic should not be thought of as irreversible, particularly where justice or consistency in the application of the law were at risk.
  • The interruption to courts’ normal operations has been to the detriment of legal aid and publicly-funded sectors. The committee recommended that the government increases the budget for legal aid.
  • It could take several years to clear the backlog of criminal, family and employment cases flowing through the system. This has meant defendants being held on remand for longer. Also, litigants and victims have been made to wait longer for their case to be concluded and there is a greater likelihood of evidence being lost or forgotten about during lengthy waits for a hearing.
  • Data illustrating the difficulties that the justice system has faced during the coronavirus pandemic is inadequate or incomplete, meaning fundamental questions about the justice system‘s day-to-day operations remain unanswered. The committee recommends that the government commit to ensuring the effects of remote court hearings are identifiable.

“There has been a monumental effort by all working in courts and tribunals to maintain a functioning justice system in recent months,” said Baroness Taylor, who chaired the Constitution Committee. “We applaud the hard work of all those who have supported court users in these very difficult circumstances.

“However, recognition of the significant achievements in responding to the pandemic should not obscure the scale of the challenges that the courts continue to face.

“The courts system was not well prepared for disruption on the scale caused by the pandemic. Courts funding had fallen significantly in real terms over the preceding decade and a programme to modernise court technology was struggling to deliver the improvements needed.

“There is much work to be done to address the constitutional consequences of the pandemic for the courts. The government needs to renew its vision and increase the funding to achieve it.

“For justice to be done, and be seen to be done, considerable new effort and investment is required.”

The future

We were all thrust into the pandemic with genuine fears about a forever-changed future and what it held. Law firms were no different.

But, spearheaded by practices focusing on mergers and acquisitions, private equity, finance, litigation and technology, law firms have been hunting top-quality partners as they engaged in a period of growth.

And with a 300% increase in its staffing levels, Barings Law is among those expanding to build for the future.

This hiring activity could not be possible without the technology we may once have been sceptical about but which, in the event, proved a godsend for our professional and personal lives.

Remote interviews and virtual onboarding have become commonplace and proved efficient. Before the pandemic struck, the very idea of joining a new company without having met your future colleagues – and perhaps company seniors – in person was outlandish.

That’s not the case any more, and probably never will be again.

Disruption during the selection process is minimal for hiring firms and once the initial trepidation of video calling has passed (and let’s face it, for most of us it did long ago) firms can use the technology to access a broader range of candidates and vice versa for candidates searching for their next position.

Necessity is the mother of invention and the pandemic moved the goalposts for law firms looking to continue trading, and recruiting.

Some firms will, without a doubt, move back towards the bind of travelling to face-to-face meetings once more.

But those who embrace what they have already become familiar with will have a clear advantage in the legal profession of the future.