Coronavirus fears hit law firms, courts; plans for containment

Law firms around the world are considering how best to help contain the spread of coronavirus among staff and clients. Some legal offices have closed their corporate premises, requiring their staff to work from home. And in some countries even the courts have been affected or are making plans for possible shut-down.

When an epidemic like coronavirus hits the world, judges, courts and law firms are not exempt from infection. Or from taking steps to contain its spread among staffers.

Last week major London law firm Baker McKenzie became the first UK BigLaw outfit to require its staff to work from home as a precaution to prevent possible spread of the virus.

This followed the return of a member of staff from northern Italy. After getting back to the UK, the staffer had been taken ill and was to be tested for coronavirus. More than 1 000 Baker McKenzie employees were told to stay home until further notice, pending the results of tests on the ill staffer.

Legal Business quoted a Baker McKenzie official as saying the company’s priority was the health of staff and clients. ‘We have asked our London office employees to work from home for the time being while we are taking precautionary measures in response to a potential case of the COVID-19.’

The official added, ‘We have a well-established agile working programme – including technology and IT systems for home working – which allows us to take these precautionary measures without impacting our client service delivery. We continue to closely monitor the situation and are following the advice and guidance issued by the Government and Public Health England.’

Several major law firms have banned staff from travelling to China and Hong Kong. Some law firms in Milan, the Italian city so far most affected by the virus, have been closed and Dentons has temporarily closed its offices in Wuhan.

Most courts in Hong Kong adjourned at the end of January, as part of the strategy to prevent spread. This has worsened the backlog of cases, and the South China Morning Post quotes an official judicial statement as saying most hearings at all levels would be further adjourned to an as yet unknown date – this despite calls by lawyers and legal firms for clarity on when they would be expected in court.  

An official statement on behalf of the judiciary said that judges were aware of the impact the current closure had on the daily operation and businesses of the courts, on court users and other members of the public. But, said the statement, judges were trying to ‘strike a careful balance’ between public health and the administration of justice.

Amid concern that some suspects may spend more time in jail as a result of the court closure, there have been calls for judges to sit for longer hours once court work resumes.

In Singapore, by comparison, the judiciary has continued to sit and hear cases, and some critics in Hong Kong have said the current situation made clear how technologically far behind the Hong Kong legal system had fallen. Courts in Singapore had used an electronic system for filing documents for 15 years already, and this system continued to operate during the current epidemic. In Hong Kong, by comparison, legal documents must be filed physically (rather than electronically).

The South China Morning Post quotes a commercial lawyer, May Ng, who works for a global law firm, as saying that the closure of the courts had had an ‘inevitable impact’ on the profession. Her firm was handling a multimillion dollar dispute in which a rival party had failed to respond before the stipulated deadline. Normally that would have given her clients the upper hand and allowed the firm to apply for a judgment in favour of her client.

But because the court registry was closed and there was no system of electronic filing, it was not possible to apply for a default judgment.

Among others taking precautions, one US firm has cancelled a retreat and another is reported to have cancelled meetings with its partners in Asia. Some firms have asked lawyers to self-quarantine and stay at home when they return from high-risk locations. Others have stopped certain overseas partners from attending meetings in the US, or have barred all non-essential travel to hot spot locations.

Bloomberg Law reports that the US courts have drawn up a ‘coronavirus combat plan’ for if the virus should spread. The plan would try to maintain ‘essential elements of prevention and maintaining essential services’ if there were to be an outbreak.

Among other plans, the courts were emphasizing the ‘regular, routine cleaning of workplace surfaces, hand washing and “good respiratory etiquette”.’