COVID-19 and the Future of Law
At the heart of the current crisis is its human impact, the very real direct threat to life that it poses across the globe. Further to this is the threat to society as it is currently lived. Looking beyond the current medical crises, the legal profession, like the wider society into which it fits, cannot just carry on as before but must meet and prepare for the new challenges which are to be faced in both the near and distant future.
According to divorce lawyer Baroness Shackleton a rise in divorce is “very likely”, as couples find themselves unable to cope trapped in a high-pressure environment together. For families sharing parenting between households there is the additional complication of managing where children spend their time. While the UK Government has made exceptions in social distancing to help alleviate this issue, it won’t necessarily prevent legal disputes over joint custody, where legal advice will be essential.
An immediate and continuing cause of concern for many businesses has been supply chain disputes, which are likely to continue for some time due to the global nature of production and the worldwide impact of the virus. For companies who are unable to fulfill obligations there is the challenge of restructuring or insolvency. Although the UK Government has recently announced it will amend insolvency laws to allow companies to continue trading while they try to find alternative options.
In existing contracts force majeure is a boilerplate clause most businesses hope (and expect) they will never have to invoke. However, as the government placed legally binding social restrictions in place and also applied moral pressure to further restrict social interactions and normal business processes, many events were cancelled as a result, thus the reality of applying and, if necessary enforcing, force majeure clauses has to be addressed – not only in the events industry, which is quickly adapting to working online, but across all sectors. A major issue in English law is that force majeure is not defined - neither in statute nor in case law - and will not be implied into contracts where it is not expressed. As a result, there are many possible interpretations of force majeure, which inevitably leads to conflicts regarding liability, with parties then resorting to seek legal advice for these current contracts.
Further to this are the amendments many companies are having to make and will have to make to draft and future contracts, due to the impact of the effects of Covid-19. Further still, the current crisis has heightened awareness, so similarly unprecedented future crises are also being considered. Legal advice is essential here to both ensure that any changes have their intended effect, have no unintended consequences, and that they are seen (and, if necessary are arguably) as both equitable and palatable to clients and suppliers. This way relationships can be maintained while safeguarding the businesses against future threats.
The complex and wide-ranging issues raised by COVID-19 will continue to affect clients at all scales, from individuals to large multinationals. In a perceived, increasingly uncertain world people will be keener than ever to seek legal advice and gain some clarity and certainty on their situation, be that for shared childcare or a conglomerate merger.