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‘It is not business as usual,’ LSO treasurer says as Canadian law societies react to COVID-19

Thursday, March 19, 2020 @ 9:49 AM | By Amanda Jerome

As Canada continues to increase strict measures to deal with COVID-19, law societies across the country are enabling staff to work from home, while providing direction to legal professionals as they try to maintain practices during a time of social distancing.

The Law Society of Newfoundland & Labrador, the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, and the Law Society of Alberta have all closed up shop and asked staff to work remotely. The Law Society of Ontario (LSO) and the Law Society of British Columbia have enacted the same measures and offered guidance to legal professionals working remotely or self-isolating.

According to the LSO website, staff will be working remotely until April 3, at which point the situation will be reassessed.

LSO treasurer Malcolm Mercer

LSO treasurer Malcolm Mercer told The Lawyer’s Daily that the law society is “no different” from any other employer in Ontario, including law firms, and it is taking the necessary precautions to keep employees safe.

“We have paid close attention to what the public health authorities have been saying and concluded that it was important to do our part to address the pandemic that we face by limiting the potential communication of the coronavirus,” he explained.

The LSO has posted a series of practice management directions in relation to COVID-19. Mercer said the law society created this resource to respond to questions and issues raised by lawyers and paralegals directly and through social media.

A few directions he highlighted related to staying informed during a global pandemic and using technology to assist with social distancing.

“The law society is not [an] expert as a public health adviser, and so you’ll see that a number of the suggestions or recommendations say that lawyers and paralegals, those who are managing firms, ought to play close attention to what health authorities are saying. That’s important,” he said, noting that a few directions were made with respect to social isolation and how to cope with that as a legal professional.

“Two examples are with respect to commissioning of affidavits and with respect to verifying the identity of clients under the know your client obligations,” he said, noting “the law society’s interpretation for the period of this time [is] being in the presence of someone can include seeing them through video across the Internet.”

“That allows the commissioning of affidavits, it allows the verification of identity we’re required without physically being in the same place but being electronically present in the same place. That’s an important flexibility,” he explained.  

“What the guidance goes on to do though is to give lawyers and paralegals specific advice about the circumstance where that is appropriate and, as well, the things to be concerned about. By way of example, and there are a number of them, it’s important that privilege and confidentiality be maintained, so one might be concerned about who else might be present that you cannot see. And in some circumstances, wills for example, there is always a concern when you’re dealing remotely with issues of undue influence,” he said, noting legal professionals can properly use the flexibility offered by technology, but should still be careful.

Other measures taken by the LSO include not charging a late payment fee on annual fees, allowing lawyers and paralegals to file their annual reports without penalty until the end of May and not suspending those who haven’t paid their annual fees by the deadline. The Law Society Tribunal has also cancelled all in-person hearings until at least April 30.  

“All proceedings management and pre-hearing conferences will be held by teleconference; parties before the tribunal will be contacted with details,” the LSO’s website noted.

The LSO’s convocation, which was supposed to be held on April 23, has been cancelled as well.

“The decision which has been taken for April is that committees and Convocation will not meet. We would not have an effective Convocation or committee meetings remotely with the number of people that we have involved. If we have to address particular decisions on an urgent basis, we can of course do that, but it is not business as usual,” explained Mercer.

Mercer encouraged lawyers and paralegals, the legal professions in Ontario, to stay “calm and collected.”

“It is very early days. We only had the court deciding to substantially shut down over the weekend. Things are changing day by day and we don’t know how long this is going to last. Everyone will be looking for answers and looking for certainty, but I think what we all have to do is stay cool, calm and collected, recognizing that information will be coming at us, we should pay attention to it, and we need to continue to react and to be thoughtful about that,” he stressed.

Mercer also said the professions should be proud of the way “they are protecting their clients, protecting the public, [and] reacting to a very difficult situation.”

“Simply by way of example, I’ve been watching the work of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association in dealing with difficulties in courts yesterday and today and we should all be proud of the work we do,” he added.

The treasurer also encouraged the professions to keep their eyes on the main point: “the public health concern.”

“We face a pandemic that we all need to do our bit to manage and keep under the best control we can. We’re in difficult times and we should focus on what matters, which is obviously flattening the curve,” he urged.

The Law Society of British Columbia released a statement indicating that its staff will be working remotely “until further notice.”

“This is an unprecedented situation involving complex and rapid business decisions. We will continue to evaluate and respond to practice concerns as they arise and provide further guidance over the coming days,” the statement said. “We appreciate your patience as we continue to work and put new processes in place.”

In a similar move to Ontario, the B.C. regulator also noted that in “unique circumstances where lawyers unable to avail themselves of any other verification method, the law society will take a reasonable approach in its compliance activity, if the lawyer verifies identification by using videoconference technology.”

B.C. noted that “the situation remains fluid” and encouraged legal professionals to check the regulator’s website often for updates.

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