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Legal industry moves to remote working in response to COVID-19 spread

Legal industry moves to remote working in response to COVID-19 spread

By Karin Derkley

Courts Legal Services Tribunals 

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Victorian law firm offices and other legal providers are moving to remote working arrangements in a bid to combat the spread of the coronavirus among their staff and clients.

This week many firms including Allens, Maddocks, Gilbert + Tobin (G+T), Hall & Willcox, and KWM announced they were scaling back their in-office workforce and implementing remote working arrangements.

G+T is encouraging all staff to work remotely except where they need to attend the office for business critical reasons. It is also encouraging virtual meetings as the preferred method to deal with clients. "This is one of those decisions that may have felt hard today but in a few days will feel a no brainer. We need to reduce social contact urgently," G+T COO Sam Nickless said on Twitter.

Maddocks is conducting a split-team arrangement, with half of each team working away from the office on alternate seven day periods to reduce the number of people exposed if there is an outbreak. The firm is trialling everyone working away from the office on Friday. Staff can also work away from the office indefinitely if they wish. The firm has also cancelled all public-facing events and are using alternative ways to meet or conduct seminars.

Maddocks CEO Michelle Dixon said the split-team arrangement is aimed at ensuring the firm’s processes and technology are able to handle the transition and address any issues that might arise.
 
KWM has introduced new working arrangements across all its Australian offices with all staff asked to work remotely until further notice unless physical presence is required to deal with clients and there are no appropriate alternative arrangements.

Allens staff are now working remotely across all its offices in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. The firm said it is well prepared for remote working and that clients will be able to reach its people as normal.
 
Lander & Rogers has asked most of its people to work remotely until further notice, with a small number of people remaining on site for functions which cannot be undertaken remotely.
 
Hall & Wilcox says its people are currently transitioning to be primarily working away from the office, with the majority expected to be working remotely by Friday 20 March. All “in person” events will be moved to webinar-based events and all other “‘in person” events that cannot be run as a webinar will be cancelled.

LIV CEO Adam Awty said the LIV was continuing to provide support and services to members via webinars, phone and online. The LIV has transitioned its March Legal Practice Management Course from face to face to a digital delivery. The  March program is fully subscribed, however registrations are available for May and June programs.

 The Law Council of Australia has said its offices will remain open and that it will update this advice as it continues to monitor the COVID-19 situation closely. The LCA has asked that anyone who has or been in close contact with someone who has recently returned from overseas, or are currently experiencing symptoms should not attend the Law Council’s offices.

The Victorian Bar said it is closely monitoring the situaiton and following government guidelines. "We are also enhancing our capabilities and helping those of our members who are working from home with the requisite IT solutions so that they can continue to provide essential support and advice, assist clients and those who need our help in the community, and ensure, as far possible, the continued and smooth administration of justice,” Victorian Bar president Wendy Harris QC said.

Law Week 2020 is scheduled for 18-24 May. Organisers are monitoring the situation and will provide more information based on advice provide by the government and health services. Check the Law Week website for updated information.

The entire team at the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) is working remotely as of Tuesday 17 March, following advice from Victoria's Chief Medical Officer that "if the option exists, working from home is preferable".  
 
"Fortunately, this is an option for the HRLC team, so we’re implementing it immediately," HRLC legal director Daniel Webb said. "We each have an important role to play to help ‘flatten the curve’ and keep ourselves, our families and our wider communities safe.”
 
Community legal centres have scaled back their face to face services and many are suspending their volunteer-based night services and looking at other options to deliver services in the future.
 
Justice Connect is moving its community-based services to a phone and video model to reduce exposure for staff, volunteer lawyers and clients. Over the coming weeks, it will commence a pilot of an entirely online legal clinic, Justice Connect Answers, that connects people with pro bono lawyers to receive private, one-off advice in an online setting.  
 
Victoria Legal Aid said there will likely be disruptions to some services as it implements alternative working arrangements or reduces service levels to support staff health and wellbeing measures.

The courts and tribunals are constantly updating their arrangements in response to the virus, but as at the morning of 19 March their updates were as such:

•     The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal will be conducting residential tenancy and guardianship matters only by phone, with all other matters being adjourned.
•    The Magistrates' Court of Victoria continues to operate as usual but is looking at ways it can adapt how it works to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including staggering court times to prevent morning crowds at entrance points.
•    The Children’s Court is operating as usual.
•    The Chief Justice of Victoria and Chair of the Courts Council made a statement on Monday about no new jury trials in the County and Supreme Courts, and possible further measures. The court user survey has also been postposed.
•    Supreme Court admission ceremonies have been postponed, with a likely impact on admission ceremonies in to the foreseeable future.
•    The Administrative Appeals Tribunal is contacting people who have hearings, conferences and other events scheduled from 23 March to make alternative arrangements to progress their cases.
•    The Federal Court is communicating with all parties with matters listed for hearing in the upcoming months. Parties have been requested to identify (with the assistance of the Court) opportunities by which listings may proceed either by way of telephone conference or other remote access technology.
•    The Family Court is putting in place urgent operational arrangements, including that any trials or hearings that can be done by telephone should be, staggering any high volume lists required to be conducted in person to reduce the number of people in attendance in the Registry, and limiting the number of people to attend a courtroom at any one time (other than the judge and their support staff) to eight people.
•    The Coroners Court has suspended non-essential hearings for the week of 16 March 2020. The Court will continue to actively investigate all cases and explore alternative methods for conducting rescheduled hearings.
•    The High Court will not be sitting in Canberra or on circuit in the months of April, May and June. The question of future sittings will be reviewed in June.


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