As we went into the first lockdown in March 2020, our teams were on hand to support clients navigating through unprecedented economic, personal and legislative changes resulting from the pandemic. We asked a handful of lawyers from our Covid-19 support team about their key focus over the last 12 months in supporting their clients:
Vanessa Williams – Business and Corporate
The main area that I have helped business clients with is in relation to the financial support packages available, analysing what they were eligible for and whether they could apply for loans under the Bounce Back Loan Scheme or the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans Scheme (CBILS) and participate in The Future Fund.
I have also now had clients ask for help understanding the new Recovery Loan Scheme. Once the assessment has been done, I have helped in preparing the paperwork for the applications and also advising on personal guarantees where needed on top of the Government guarantee.
Sarah King and Nelu Abeygunasekera – Employment
Our employment team was probably among the busiest as a direct result of Covid, supporting employers and individuals with a multitude of queries and interpreting new policies and legislation often ahead of detailed government guidance being issued. Our team advised on a range of issues including:
- Temporary closure of an office and moving 100 staff including a call centre to home working at short notice
- Implementation of furlough schemes and their various changes often with real time issues arising before the guidance was issued including:
- Holiday pay for bank holidays that fell during the term
- Queries over flexible furlough and training staff on furlough
- Dealing with those due to come back from maternity leave and whether they were eligible for furlough
- Shielding employees and whether they could return to the work
- Collective redundancies and reductions in staff as well as finding ways to assist employers not to cut staff numbers in difficult times
- School closures and the impacts on working parents within the business, could they be furloughed and asked to work flexibly as an alternative to parental leave
- Accrual of holiday during 2020 and rolling this over before the Government made new regulations to deal with this
- Health and safety issues re asking staff to continue working on site and staff who objected to attend work
- Queries about asking employees to complete mandatory daily health questionnaires and taking their temperature
Naomi Lelliott – Family
There’s been a lot of questions raised in relation to the impact of Covid on families. With children matters, these included can I still see my children? Are children allowed to see both parents and travel between homes? Can I take my children on holiday? And at the beginning, should I send my children to school and what do I do if I don’t want them to go because we’re shielding.
With matrimonial finances, clients have obviously been concerned about financial arrangements moving forward and the impact of Covid on their business and incomes. Some clients have seen their incomes drastically reduced and had to negotiate reductions in payments, others have had issues with interim maintenance where ex-spouses have claimed a reduction in earnings due to the pandemic.
These are all things that we’ve had to navigate the clients through and adapt on short notice, whilst also adapting to the changing work practices of the courts, with a lot of applications now being predominantly dealt with online, more hearings taking place by telephone and via Teams, and an increase in advocacy because it can be more cost effective.
I personally have offered free consultations, ran a free mediation initiative in June of last year to assist families that were wanting to use alternative methods of dispute resolution but had previously not been able to afford them. I have offered flexibility in my fee structure, joining the Only Mums and Dads Green Phone Initiative, offering reduced hourly rates for people on low incomes. Our practices have had to become more flexible and tailored to each individual to ensure access to justice.
Richard Osborn – Real Estate
Pre-pandemic, there had been a move towards more flexible leasing arrangements, which the pandemic has accelerated, so a lot of work where we have supported both tenants and landlords has been about finding more flexible positions on lease negotiations generally. Those have ranged from deferred or reduced rent arrangements to lease re-gearing or downsizing, particularly in relation to offices and leisure and retail space. Lease renewals have also generally been for shorter terms over the last year. We have also seen a significant trend in conversion from offices to residential accommodation, supported by the Government’s permitted development rights enabling redevelopment of redundant office accommodation into much needed housing stock.
Student accommodation is another key sector in the UK property market and has been significantly impacted by the delay in students starting or returning to university until the 2021/22 academic year. Working with our HE institutional clients and landlords we have assisted in repurposing stock and also, in some cases, disposing of surplus stock to generate much needed funds.
On the development and construction side, we have seen projects facing supply chain issues, a halt to planning and inspection timetables and new health and safety measures for the benefit of the workforce. This has had impacts, not only on the cost of delivering projects, but also on timescales and we have supported many clients, both as contractors/developers and their clients/employers on negotiating revised terms and extensions of time on contracts.
Whilst there have been challenges, many real estate lawyers say that they have rarely been busier. The market has been extremely buoyant over the last year, in part supported by government intervention (SDLT concessions and furlough filtering through the market) – and there have been opportunities and deals to be had for those with funds available to proceed without the need for external funding.