On 1 June 2020, the British Government’s lockdown, imposed since mid-March in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, began to ease. In England, groups of up to six people can now meet up, as long as they stay outdoors and maintain a distance apart of two metres. Schools have re-opened for Years One and Six, and Reception. And those who could not work from home are now being urged to return to their place of employment.
Although most law firms have had their staff working from home since lockdown began, eventually, offices will need to re-open. There has been significant progress towards a vaccine; however, the World Health Organisation has made clear that Covid-19 could be with us for a long time.
How law firms choose to keep staff and clients safe when they do decide to re-open will depend on many factors such as:
- the layout of the office
- whether there are vulnerable people on the team
- the feelings of the staff concerning re-opening
The property market is one sector which seems to have successfully implemented social distancing. To get the property market moving again in England, the Government has recently permitted estate agents’ offices to re-open, viewings to happen, and removal companies to resume work.
Government guidance on how the property market can stay safe during the Coronavirus pandemic
Government guidance states that new practices and procedures need to be implemented to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 spreading. Steps include, amongst others:
- Conducting viewings virtually if possible. If the property is being viewed in person, the viewers must be from the same household, and no open house viewings should take place.
- Those viewing houses should avoid touching anything, wash their hands regularly, and bring hand sanitiser.
- If a home is being viewed, all surfaces such as door handles must be cleaned after the viewing. All internal doors should remain open throughout the viewing.
- Staff of home moving companies must practice social distancing, and the person moving should do as much packing as possible themselves rather than get removers to do it. Homeowners should not provide refreshments but should ensure movers have access to handwashing facilities, using separate towels or paper towels if possible, which should be washed or disposed of safely afterwards.
- Agents showing people around homes must practice social distancing.
- Agents must ask if involved parties are showing symptoms of Coronavirus or have been asked to self-isolate before permitting a viewing.
In response to the news the conveyancing industry was re-opening, Law Society President Simon Davis said:
‘We welcome the announcement by government to re-open the housing market so that buyers and sellers can engage once again within the perimeters of social distancing guidelines.
‘Solicitors are ready to help the many whose house moves have stalled – so long as, crucially, it can be done in a way that complies with public health requirements. The industry-wide guidance and subsequent guidance for solicitors will help them to get the market back on its feet safely, securely and as expediently as is possible.’
What law firms can do to protect their staff and clients
Many of the steps in the Government’s guidance for home moving during the pandemic can apply to law firms. New instructions, terms of engagement, and client letters should be amended to confirm restrictions or information on the conditions of visiting the office. For existing instructions, these restrictions or changes to terms of engagement should be sent in writing.
The Law Society Gazette suggests that ID checks should be conducted “using electronic verification methods” wherever possible. If legal documents such as a Will, which requires a witness to be physically present, needs signing, signatories should use their own pen and wear gloves. The other signatories may also welcome a mask being worn by all.
It is impossible to guess how long businesses across the UK will need to implement policies and procedures to ensure the risk of spreading Coronavirus is mitigated. This may be ‘normal’ for some time. Many team members and clients will be nervous about returning to work/visiting their solicitor’s office. Ensuring you have a clear, well-communicated risk-management framework in place containing robust policies and procedures will provide confidence to everyone visiting your practice that you have their best interests and health at the forefront of your business.
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