Costs Lawyers will be able to obtain all of their CPD points for 2020 from remote learning activities if needed, the Costs Lawyer Standards Board (CLSB) has announced in advice to the profession on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A policy statement issued this week said that, for this year only, the CLSB would not enforce the six-point cap on e-learning activities in the CPD rules or the restriction on the type of e-learning activities that qualify for CPD points. “E-learning on any subject matter that is relevant to your practice will count toward CPD requirements,” it said.
The advice stressed that Costs Lawyers’ obligation to act in the best interests of clients “does not mean that you should put yourself or your colleagues at risk”. However, they should keep clients updated about changes to working arrangements and explain any impact these could have on their service.
It continued: “The legal services industry has, on the whole, responded nimbly to the challenges created by the coronavirus outbreak and many practitioners have been able to retain a full service on a remote basis.
“However, if your service is being curtailed, you should prioritise client matters where a delay could cause your client loss or distress (particularly where there is a risk of irremediable loss, such as a missed court deadline). Any clients whose matters are deprioritised on this basis should be informed as soon as possible and provided with information about likely new timeframes, if possible.”
The advice also highlighted the situations where Costs Lawyers may be considered ‘keyworkers’.
In other news, a new practice direction clarifying when civil courts may derogate from the principle of open justice to conduct hearings remotely in private was published yesterday.
Under it, the court may exercise the power to hold a remote hearing in private where it is not possible for the hearing to be simultaneously broadcast in a court building or for a journalist to have access to it. But, so far as possible, the video or audio should be recorded and made available later to anyone who asks for it. The practice direction will only remain in force for as long as the government’s new coronavirus legislation applies.
Meanwhile, the Civil Procedure Rule Committee (CPRC) has also confirmed that it is “urgently” considering other possible rule changes, with remote hearings now the default in the civil and family courts.
In a message to stakeholders, it said: “Please be assured that CPR updates in response to the COVID-19 outbreak remain under urgent consideration. CPR updates are therefore likely to be necessary and at short notice.”
This comes against the background of well-known blogging barrister Gordon Exall, a member of Kings Chambers, rallying support for an open letter to the CPRC calling for it to allow parties to agree general extensions of time and also suspend CPR 3.9.
He wrote: “It is absurd that litigators, who have a duty to continue to provide a public service, have to worry about time periods, about being struck out, about not being paid because a costs budget cannot be lodged timeously, about a default judgment being entered because they cannot speak to key witnesses.
“All of these time periods must be relaxed. The rules should encourage the parties to co-operate, they should ensure that the relevant document is placed, in good time, before a judge hearing a remote hearing, however this is not a time for sanctions.”
Mr Exall said the requirement that a party sign their own witness statement and disclosure statement should also be suspended.
One of those supporting the letter wrote in the comments of the blog that the period for commencing detailed assessment proceedings should be “extended significantly, relaxed, or the sanctions under CPR 47.8 be temporarily postponed”.
He said: “Currently, where the substantive claim settled in December 2019 or January 2020, before the full impact or the extent of COVID-19 was known, a receiving party still has to commence assessment proceedings within three months or be subject to sanctions.
“With many solicitors and their costs draftsmen now working from home, with significantly reduced workforces, it is becoming glaringly obvious that such time restrictions cannot realistically be complied with.”
Commercial barrister James M Turner of Quadrant Chambers has published a guide to e-bundles as these will now become the norm too.
Elsewhere, the Association of British Insurers has joined forces with leading claimant firm Thompsons to launch a ‘coronavirus personal injury protocol’ to ensure neither claimants nor defendants employ opportunistic tactics during the crisis – for example, by taking advantage of missed deadlines.
It says: “While such action is ultimately likely to be given short shrift by the courts, it is not in anyone’s interests to test that.”
As a result, the protocol provides:
An agreement that all limitation dates in all PI cases are frozen and claimants undertake to respond constructively to defendant requests for extension of time to serve a defence;
An escalation process whereby any issue arising by a party’s failure to act in accordance with this, and which cannot immediately be resolved between the parties, is referred to an email and/or telephone ‘hotline’ specifically established for this situation; and
A commitment that the email and telephone hotline will be monitored regularly and referred to senior people within the respective organisations who will be able to make a swift decision as to whether the stance being taken should be adjusted in light of prevailing circumstances.
Several insurers and many leading law firms have already signed up. See here for more details.
The Legal Aid Agency has also issued detailed guidance on its approach during the pandemic, saying that “to maintain cash flow for civil and crime matters, we continue to only reject the parts of bills which are missing information fundamental to the assessment process. Other amounts submitted in the bill which we are able to agree will be paid promptly”.
Finally, the British Business Bank website has details of the government’s coronavirus business interruption loan scheme.
Its VAT deferral scheme is automatic and no application is required. It is for three months. Taxpayers will be given until the end of the 2020/21 tax year to pay any liabilities that have accumulated during the deferral period.
Firms must still submit their VAT returns as usual, with those that normally pay VAT by direct debit being urged to cancel the direct debit in sufficient time so that HMRC does not attempt to collect automatically on receipt of the return.
HMCTS is now issuing a daily email on the current status of its operations. Sign up here.