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Local authority legal practice during COVID-19

What is it like working in local authority legal practice during the coronavirus pandemic? Matthew Dineen explains.

The most serious pandemic for a century has yielded the most significant interruption of daily life not seen for generations. Not since the Second World War have our everyday routines been so substantively affected. As we approach the 75th anniversary of VE day, the inspiring and romantic rhetoric of that famous war time spirit has been evoked to motivate today’s generations to rise to our own, albeit very different, challenge.

A natural evolution of working practices has been suspended and replaced with an immediate need for innovation, potentially permanently affecting our approach to how we work.

In many respects, a local authority is akin to an emergency service, particularly in times of national emergency. As solicitors in local government, the effects of the current emergency are several: colleagues who would ordinarily be instructing us have been redeployed to ensure essential services continue to be delivered and vulnerable residents supported; large commercial transactions have, on the whole, abated or have paused to allow resources to be directed elsewhere; whilst those files concerned with the delivery of statutory duties have, naturally, increased.

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We are having to rise to the challenge of understanding what has, and what has not, changed in terms of legislative frameworks. Government advice during this emergency has not always been followed by a clear legislative structure and even where it has, it is often passed weeks after the guidance was issued and looks very different from what the Government advised initially. This is not a criticism of the Government; these are unprecedented times. But seeks to highlight how this causes operational confusion, with clients unsure as to what decisions they may take.

This all takes place within an ever-bubbling cauldron of fiscal challenge. Along with the existing well publicised budgetary pressures, local authorities have seen the evisceration of cashflow from property portfolios, with commercial tenants unable or unwilling to pay the rent. Even without the protective provisions of the Coronavirus Act in relation to forfeiture, the practical options available to a landlord in these circumstances are limited. It seems to have been omitted from the national conversation about the economic impact of the pandemic, that local authorities feel the commercial pain just as much as the private sector.

The societal effects of the pandemic have been so extensive that the very fabric of democratic life has been interrupted, with the Greater London Assembly and London Mayoral elections having been postponed. Similarly, the incumbent Lord Mayor of London will serve an additional term, rather than a new Lord Mayor being elected this year.

The current emergency has, however, yielded opportunities. The chance to volunteer to assist with frontline services and the NHS, the chance for greater engagement with the voluntary sector and the chance to advise on issues that are out of the ordinary. For example, I recently had to advise on the terms of a Royal Charter granted by King Edward III in 1336 (after dusting off some old GCSE textbooks – it was drafted entirely in Latin).

Working practices during the lockdown have seen the widespread use of conference calls, documents signed electronically and some use of video technology. Naturally there are important data security concerns that have to be explored, meaning that we cannot rush to download the latest “in vogue” app. In litigation, all courts have taken different stances and the profession has evolved from being very confident in remote hearings, to a greater understanding that fairness demands that many contested hearings cannot be conducted effectively by virtual means.

We must also be mindful of the vitally important issue of staff welfare, with those of us occupying managerial positions having to find solutions to mitigate the understandable anxious isolation that many team members feel acutely.

Going forward, there are two distinct but related issues to resolve: firstly, how to work with the easing of the current restrictions when new rules eventually arrive and secondly, what will the workplace look like in the longer-term and how will it affect the designs of new infrastructure, for example, when the London Borough of Harrow builds its new Civic Centre. The working environment will change and the built environment will evolve with it. It is hoped Parliament will permit the law to modernise with the new reality. Innovation and evolution should not be assumed; but the challenge grasped.

Our reality is not days spent in the bomb shelters or nights down on the platform at Charing Cross station. Rather, they are spent with headsets affixed, sat in front of laptops in the comfort of our own homes - albeit often cramped with family members also working remotely - or being shielded due to underlying health conditions. In amongst this, some colleagues then also have perhaps the most difficult task of all – home schooling.

Some messages are the same though: heed Government guidance and to look out for one another. If we do, to quote Dame Vera, “we’ll meet again, some sunny day…”

Matthew Dineen is Senior Lawyer & Team Leader – Property at HB Public Law, which has 170 lawyers providing legal expertise to local authorities, schools, academies, housing organisations and others in the public and not-for-profit sectors.

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