On 11 March, the World Health Organisation characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic. The disease is spreading rapidly around the world. It is important that everyone continues taking all necessary infection control measures. The more vigilant we are, the more likely we can return to normal life sooner.
Surrounded by news of increasing confirmed infections and death tolls, panic buying and isolation measures, what we need most now are positive actions that can help one another implement infection control, source necessities and reconnect through mutual support.
In my Message in the March issue, I have reported on some of the work that the Law Society has done to assist members during the outbreak of COVID-19. Our work on this front continues.
To prepare for the adverse impact of the pandemic on the economy and in turn on legal practices, the Law Society has written to the Hong Kong Association of Banks with a view to exploring the types of support measures that may be offered by banks to law firms and legal practitioners. Two banks have responded with offers that have been disseminated to the general membership via our Weekly Circulars.
Office rental is a major overhead in running a legal practice. The Law Society has approached the Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong, which recommends law firms to discuss with their landlords individually for concessionary measures. To facilitate such discussions, the Law Society has prepared a general letter to landlords to urge for support for law firm tenants and the letter is available to our members on request.
Further, the Law Society has requested the Legal Aid Department to speed up the processing of payments of fees to assigned solicitors and solicitor advocates in legal aid matters, to which we have received positive replies.
Owing to public health considerations, the Law Society has suspended the conduct of continuing professional development (“CPD”) and risk management education (“RME”) courses in February and March. With our temporary suspension of courses, members may be left with fewer choices of CPD and RME activities for compliance with the relevant statutory obligations. As such, the Council has decided to implement measures that will effectively allow members more time (not less than two months) to complete their obligations. The details are being considered and will be announced in due course. Further, to alleviate the financial burden on members that may be caused to their practices due to the economic downturn, the Council has resolved that general CPD courses be offered free of charge to our members in 2020.
The general adjournment of court proceedings since 29 January, which was initially scheduled to end on 22 March, has been extended for two more weeks until 5 April due to the recent rapid increase of the number of infected cases. The Law Society is in close contact with the Judiciary urging it to have a medium to long term strategy in place and to consider special measures to deal with the possibility of a prolonged outbreak of COVID-19. These efforts may include expediting the introduction of appropriate technology to facilitate the administration of justice (eg e-service and e-filing, telephone/video conference hearings, sending judgments by email instead of adjourning the handing down of judgments etc), utilising the time during the general adjournment period to quicken the delivery of outstanding judgments which are long awaited and adopting paper-based hearings more widely.
In the past few weeks, the Judiciary has implemented some enhanced health protective measures for court users visiting court buildings. Visitors are required to wear surgical masks inside court buildings. However, surgical masks are still in huge demand and supplies are tight.
The Law Society has been sourcing surgical masks for members. I have been fortunate to be able to successfully source personally some surgical masks through different channels. I donated 25,000 surgical masks to the Law Society for distribution to members in the first week of March and another 25,000 to the Law Society for onward donation to charities, out of which the first batch of 10,000 were donated to a charitable organisation on 14 March. Through my network, the Law Society acquired a quantity of surgical masks for further distribution to those law firms and members who had not been distributed any in the first round in early March. A total of 795 firms and 2,448 members have registered their interest in the two rounds of mask distributions so far.
Of equal importance to relief measures and supplies is mutual support and encouragement in these difficult times. The Law Society has recently initiated the participation of a number of professional bodies in TVB's production of a song titled <疫境同行>. The song was first broadcast on TVB on 8 March. The idea of this initiative first came from me as I wish to promote, through music, the positive values of love, care and unity in community when faced with the challenges arising from the outbreak of COVID-19 and to support the medical profession who is in the frontline selflessly fighting for the health of the people of Hong Kong. We are very grateful for the enthusiastic support from the other professional bodies in the recording process. They include The Hong Kong Medical Association, The Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, The Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors, The Hong Kong Institute of Architects, The Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants, Hong Kong Dental Association, The Hong Kong Institute of Chartered Secretaries, The Hong Kong Institute of Landscape Architects, The Hong Kong Institute of Planners and Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong (CASH). To maximise the positive impact we hope to spread through the song, the Law Society has posted it on the social media platforms for Teen Talk, Law Week and Pro Bono Award. The links to the song are https://drive.google.com/open?id=1a-3vTzivD8P-thNTKAEzJYlnqo5tLz8D and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciFrk_tdRFY.
As the disease spreads rapidly around the world, we have our thoughts with our counterparts in overseas jurisdictions. We have written to nearly 130 legal organisations with whom we have connections as a gesture of support. We shared with them updates of the situation in Hong Kong and the steps we have taken to assist our members and to support the community as a whole during the outbreak of COVID-19.
Let us all help spread love, care and unity and inject some positive energy into society in these difficult times.