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Legal task force in US and other actions around the globe as virus spreads

20 March 2020 - By Craig Stephen

The American Bar Association (ABA) has created a nationwide task force of volunteer lawyers and judges in response to what it calls the growing legal needs of Americans arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

The COVID-19 virus is now in all 50 American states, and courts, jails, prisons and law firms are all altering the way they conduct business with the impact likely to grow, the ABA warns.

The ABA’s Task Force on Legal Needs Arising Out of the 2020 Pandemic includes representatives from top legal organisations. The group will identify legal needs arising from the pandemic, make recommendations to address those needs and help mobilise volunteer lawyers and legal professionals for people who need help.

Health workers in a US hospital

“As the pandemic spreads, thousands of Americans will need help – not just with medical issues but also with legal issues, including lost jobs, evictions, insurance claims, family emergencies and obtaining government benefits they need to survive,” ABA President Judy Perry Martinez says.

“Those who come before our criminal justice system will face additional challenges as jobs are lost, the inability to pay fines and fees escalates and we face a greater risk of detentions. In times of crisis, lawyers help. With this task force, we will start by looking for where the need is greatest and where we can make the biggest difference for people in dire situations.”

The task force includes experts in disaster response; health law; insurance; legal needs of families to protect basic human needs such as food, shelter, medical and employment benefits; criminal justice; domestic violence; civil rights and social justice.

The US Supreme Court closed its doors to visitors and announced this week that it was postponing oral arguments. The 9th Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction over areas particularly hard hit by the virus in Washington and California, has cancelled all en banc hearings for at least one week, while Arizona has authorised judges to suspend local court rules and orders if needed.

Some jurisdictions have excused people over 60 years old from jury duty.

The Federal Department of Corrections has announced that all federal correctional facilities will stop visits from family, friends or attorneys for 30 days.

Meanwhile, the New York-based Legal Aid Society is calling for a moratorium on arrests and the “immediate release” of anyone held on parole violations or in pre-trial detention.

“City Hall must place an immediate moratorium on arrests, and for the hundreds of clients we have languishing in DOC custody pretrial or because of a parole violation, we call for their immediate release. These facilities are literal breeding grounds for infectious disease such as COVID-19,” says Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society

Canada 

The Law Society of Ontario has implemented a work-at-home plan for all employees until 3 April, when the situation will be re-assessed.

Among actions the society is taking, CPD programmes will be offered by audio or webcast only; the Lawyers Feed the Hungry programme will limit its operations; and the society’s restaurant, café and library are all closed until 30 April 30 at the earliest.

“This is an unprecedented situation requiring complex and rapid business decisions. We appreciate your patience as we continue to work to amend policies and/or put new processes in place,” the society says in a statement.

Latin America

The Argentine Federation of Bar Associations says it will remain closed and they are coordinating lawyers to work from home where possible. All courses, seminars and other activities are all suspended until further notice.

In Mexico, the national Bar Association is requesting the health ministry to issue mandatory guidelines to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19, and is asking the Supreme Court to suspend or postpone all court hearings for the foreseeable future.

Europe

Bloomberg reports that in France the European Court of Human Rights has closed its doors to the public and hearings scheduled for March and April have been cancelled. The court will continue to operate behind closed doors, particularly on priority cases.

French courts all but shut down on Monday to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet says only “essential” litigation will proceed.

Elsewhere in Europe:

  • The Italian court system was shut last week with all court hearings suspended nationwide until 22 March under a government decree.
  • A verdict in Germany’s Cum-Ex tax trial may be issued as soon as next week as judges try to cope with the impact of the coronavirus on the court system.
  • In Ireland no new cases or trials will begin for the remainder of the High Court’s term and all non-jury cases will be postponed.
  • The European Court of Justice has suspended all hearings for at least two weeks.

However, Bloomberg reports that in the UK, things seem to be as normal with London’s Royal Courts of Justice having a full roster of hearings this week.

Nevertheless, the Northern Scot newspaper is reporting that no new jury trials were scheduled to take place in Scotland for the foreseeable future.

Malta’s Chamber of Advocates says in a statement that it is advising lawyers to inform their clients not to attend sittings in order to minimise the influx of people inside the law courts.

“The Chamber urges all lawyers to scrupulously follow the directives regularly being issued by the Department of Health. Those lawyers who return from abroad from those countries identified by the Health Department as being at risk, are urged to submit to the quarantine measures and stay home,” it says.

United Kingdom and Ireland

All the law societies in the British Isles are keeping members up-to-date with events happening there, as the number of deaths top 100.

The Law Society of Scotland says it is “continuing to monitor official advice and updates from the Scottish Government and NHS to ensure that we are acting in accordance with the latest guidance to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of our employees, members and stakeholders, while continuing to carry out our duties as the professional body for Scottish solicitors and provide services for our members and for members of the public.”

The Law Society of England and Wales has cancelled all face-to-face events until the end of July.

It is reviewing online alternatives to already-arranged events including podcasts, webinars and live events.

And the Law Society of Ireland’s Gazette reports that the President of the High Court has directed that for the remainder of this term no new cases or trials will begin even if they do not involve oral testimony from witnesses.

Hong Kong

There are signs that the court system is inching towards normality with the announcement this week: “that the registries and offices of the Labour Tribunal and the Small Claims Tribunal (except the Information Centre) will re-open on March 19 (Thursday).”

On the weekend the Judiciary announced that “in line with the re-opening of court registries and offices in a staggered and progressive manner starting from March 9, the Lands Tribunal Registry and the Magistrates' Courts Registries and offices will be re-opened on March 17 (Tuesday).”

Malaysia 

The Malaysian Bar says it is dismayed at the Government’s delay in instituting a lockdown of the nation due to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.  As of 15 March, there were 386 active cases in Malaysia.

“Since the recent spike in COVID-19 cases,  various concerned citizens including doctors and healthcare frontliners have implored the Government to institute a lockdown of the nation.  Many other countries have imposed states of emergency and directives to curb the spread of COVID-19, including heavily-affected countries like Italy, the United States and Iran, and less affected countries like Sri Lanka and the Philippines.”

Inter-Pacific Bar Association

The IPBA has moved its annual conference, due to be held in Shanghai, on 20-23 April to October this year.

The AGM which was also due to take place in Shanghai next month is now occurring in June in Jakarta.

Australia 

The Law Council of Australia has told members it is working on a response plan with a goal to minimise the impact of COVID-19 on its operations. “This response will be guided by the Australian Government’s recommendations and comply with health warnings and employer obligations,” it says.

The Law Society of New South Wales has temporarily suspended all events at its offices in Sydney including all face-to-face CPD seminars and third-party events.

* With thanks to the Law Society's advertising representative Maria Pirela for her excellent Spanish translating skills.

Last updated on the 20th March 2020