The passing of the Government’s HK$30 billion virus-aid package through the legislature, the reduction of rents by up to 60 percent by some landlords and commercial property owners to help mitigate the loss of retail stores and restaurants in the almost empty shopping malls, and the relief measures by some banks including the offer of interest-only payments on mortgages and loans to SMEs are some examples of the various efforts to alleviate the impact of the outbreak of COVID-19 on Hong Kong.
No one is certain how long the epidemic will continue, but the longer it takes to keep it under control, the more impactful its rippling effects will be on every walk of life.
Law firms are no doubt taking adequate precautions to protect their staff and people attending their offices. The official website of the Centre for Health Control (https://www.coronavirus.gov.hk) provides useful guidance on infection control measures.
The management issues that may arise in the current public health situation vary from firm to firm depending on many factors such as the client base, type of work handled, money held in clients' accounts, management of cheque books and accounts, number of clerks, time limits due, etc. It is important to ensure that clients' interests are protected at all times. If members wish to work from home, depending on whether the physical offices of their law firms can still fulfil the supervision requirements under rule 4A of the Solicitors' Practice Rules, they will need to consider closing the offices to the public if the statutory minimum supervision standards are not met. In the event that law firms have decided to temporarily close their offices, the Law Society provides a facility via the members' zone of our website to inform all members of any special arrangement regarding the opening hours and dates of law firms (see Circular 20-77). In these extraordinary circumstances, members are urged to be sympathetic to requests for reasonable extensions of time, subject to clients' instructions.
On extensions of time, court users have raised their concerns about the ramifications of a temporary closure of courts since 29 January and their impact on access to justice and the rule of law in Hong Kong. The Law Society has made submissions to the Judiciary in early February and met its representatives in mid-February. The latest announcement by the Judiciary dated 21 February confirmed the continuation of the general adjournment of court proceedings from 24 February to 1 March and set out the enhanced measures to support the handling of urgent and essential court matters as well as the staggering approach to be adopted for an orderly resumption of court proceedings in due course. We are pleased that the Judiciary has taken our views and suggestions into account when coming up with the enhanced measures and that as reiterated by us time and again, it will closely liaise with all stakeholders in working out any further arrangements. We have also urged the Judiciary to consider a longer term contingency plan to handle the situation should the outbreak of COVID-19 be prolonged.
We should be well prepared for all possibilities. Law firms are reminded to prepare themselves for the possibility of infection or close contact with an infected person within their own staff, or a quarantine order being imposed under the Compulsory Quarantine of Certain Persons Arriving at Hong Kong Regulation Cap. 599C, or other measures taken by the Government following the COVID-19 infection. These possible scenarios will have major impact upon the operation of law firms.
It is prudent to enquire from the Building Management what steps they will take to disinfect an office and how long that will take and how rapidly it can be completed after notification. For sole proprietors, it may be necessary to consider taking active steps to set up a "buddy system", ie to set up a relationship with another firm so as to provide timely support to each other in the event that either firm is suddenly prevented from practising for some days. In such a fluid situation, we have to be well prepared with a contingency / business continuity plan that fits the needs of our own practices, ensuring that there are adequate arrangements in place to cope with difficulties that may arise.
The Law Society has updated an aide memoire to assist members to formulate a Disaster Recovery Plan to meet individual needs. It is hoped that members will find it helpful when they formulate their own business continuity plan in the event of a sudden disruption to their practice caused by COVID-19.
Wearing a surgical mask is a common way to protect oneself and those around him or her against infection. However, the supply has been tight as the demand is so high. The Law Society’s Member Services Department has been trying hard to source surgical masks for members as a member benefit and will advise members as soon as positive feedback is received. Personally, I have been able to source some supplies and I have donated 25,000 surgical masks to the Law Society for distribution to members. I am very grateful to the kind referrals received from friends both locally and abroad who have been immensely helpful to us in our attempts to source supplies of surgical masks. Such is the power of mutual support and assistance within the Law Society’s well-established global network of legal connections. As supply is scarce, those who have sufficient stock for the time being may wish to leave the opportunities to those in more urgent need.
If members have any views or comments on issues on their legal practice arising from the current public health situation, please send them to email@example.com. We are here to listen and to assist.