CHAPTER ONE – INTRODUCTION
Congratulations. If you are reading this then you have not been taken out by the Zombie apocalypse raging all around us at present. However it may be that you are the last human left on earth. If so double congratulations as you will have this book to keep you entertained for the rest of your natural days as you await rescue by aliens.
In all seriousness the world has never faced something so uniting in one way but dividing in others as Covid-19. Never before have Governments collectively taken decisions to effectively stop their respective economies in turn causing huge financial hardship to their people. In the United Kingdom the respective national and regional Governments/Assemblies have worked together (to some extend) to limit the movement of their citizens to try to stop the spread of what on the face of it is a virus that takes it victims so viciously.
The speed at which everything has happened has taken a lot of people by surprise. I myself was at a conference in London in early March when I think the concerns were coming to the form that something quite drastic was going to happen. I don’t mind admitting I thought it was all a “fuss” over nothing. A glorified version of the common cold, a mild dose of flu with some bed rest, chicken soup and a nice cup of tea would soon clear up. How wrong I was in that belief.
For my sins, and for leaving the Partners annual retreat to “spend a penny” at an inappropriate moment I fear, I sit on the Management Board of my law firm. Meetings in the run up to “lockdown” were focused on the growth of the firm. We were not foreseeing that anything could stop us save nuclear war. We had not counted on a respiratory virus the likes of which no one has seen before.
Meetings went from looking to expand to finding the best way to consolidate. Cuts and savings needed to be made. Staffing needed to be reviewed. The whole way of working needed to be adapted. It needed to be done quickly. No time for a leisurely review. We needed to be ready.
In advance of the lockdown being announced on Monday 23 March 2020 by Boris Johnson my firm already had everyone working at home. The few people who went into the office to deal with post had discovered the phrase “social distancing” as had the rest of the world. My firm and many others had people working from home before but few in what I like to call “Traditional” law firms had required their entire staff to work remotely.
To say we did some “field testing” is true and we checked that the entire accounts teams could work remotely for instance rather than all being huddled together in their corner of the office. The rush to ensure that everyone had a laptop took place as of course we had a lot of people with them but I dare many firms to say they obtained expensive computer equipment for even their most junior members of staff. All done without too much fuss to ensure we were all ready for inevitable to “stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives”.
During this time we had people who really wanted to complete transactions. I can understand it. If they wanted to move from one place to another, had found their dream property and had an inkling that they were about to have to stay in one place for some time surely now was the time to do so.
I have to say one of my favorite stories during this time is the firm whom we completed a transaction with the Friday before lockdown commenced. They stated on their email footer they were closing for two weeks from that Friday. When asked why they said it was so they could prepare everything for their staff to work remotely. I am not sure if I was their client that I would be happy to hear that. Clients, particularly residential conveyancing clients who are transformed from meek and mild easygoing folk into foaming at the mouth rabid animals because they had to leave a message because you dared to cheat on them by speaking to another client when they called, do not care what your internal issues are. They are paying for a service and they expect to get it. Let’s face it, we lawyers would be the same if we were in their shoes.
So we all got ready across the UK it seems to work from home. The Government then threw a lot of businesses and law firms somewhat of what our American cousins refer to as a “curveball”. The Government Job retention scheme or furlough as it is colloquially known was announced on 20 March 2020.
This was, and I hate the phrase as it is used too much but in this case I will make an exception, an unprecedented action. Millions of UK citizens would be paid by the state to help their employers. The legal profession was no exception to this and tough, sometimes heartbreaking decisions had to be made. I won’t lie – choosing who to keep in place was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.
However the announcement of furlough and the rush to ensure that it could take place for the conveyancing world in itself caused issues. I like to think my firm got it about right in that we had an orderly handover to the staff that were remaining on the front line. It was not perfect but on the whole was ok. Our people make us. Never a truer phrase then during these difficult times.
Of course not all firms were as organized and our clients have had to suffer from what frankly have been some horrendous situations with other organisations. Another favourite story from this time is a major conveyancing firm whose main switchboard number diverted to an automatic message suggesting that unless you had exchanged on your matter there was no point calling to which the message then swiftly ended. No alternate number to call, no chance to leave a message, no suggestion you look at their website, no email address to try, no destination for you to send a pigeon to with a message strapped to its foot, absolutely nothing. Certainly not client care from them but mere bordering on criminal neglect.
Some have adapted to this brave new world. I frankly love being able to work at home. I am set up with dual screens, can work, as I am now typing this section myself at home in the garden with a nice chilled glass of something alcoholic close at hand, that being my wife’s glass of course. Some have struggled. I am fortunate to have my family with me. Some who live alone have felt isolated and my heart goes out to them. Some have simply struggled with the change because it is such a change to their routine. For the first few weeks of lockdown I was terribly ill with flu symptoms. I don’t know if it was Covid-19 but whatever it was it was not pleasant. We self-isolated and I am forever grateful that my wonderful wife Sarah looked after me as she always does.
Well in this book let’s take a look at the changes to the world of Residential Conveyancing, Equity Release and Enfranchisement. Residential conveyancing I think has changed for the better. The need for original documents has changed ever so slightly. Client meetings face to face can be handled by “screen time”. Identification checks can be dealt with in a more efficient and proficient way. I will take you through in the following couple of chapters the changes that have taken place and look at some of the specific tips, comments and general musings I have to offer about conveyancing in this brave new world.
The biggest change we will look at is in relation to Equity release. The constraints of having to meet the borrowers in person have been replaced with video conferencing which I have been advocating for so long I think my voice has etched a tattoo of those words on my derriere. I will look at the major changes and warnings that need to be adhered to with the changes now in force.
Finally we will look at Enfranchisement. So at this stage of this chapter at least I will hand you over to Louise for her comments on this. Louise is the real enfranchisement specialist. She is younger, thinner and far better looking than me too. However I beat her in being far more verbose…
Whilst I can’t promise that enfranchisement is the most riveting subject in the world, I will provide you with an overview of how Covid-19 has impacted this niche area of law and how enfranchisement experts like me have had to adapt to a new world which includes the serving of notices electronically.
I joined my Firm at the end of January 2020 and so didn’t really have a great deal of time to get to know my new colleagues (and the IT system) when I suddenly found myself working at home, alone, save for my husband and the dogs! I had left my last firm to work separately from my husband (as we met at work) and now here we were, working together again, in the same building at least!
Like Paul, I had been to a conference in London in early March, hosted by the Association of Leasehold Enfranchisement Practitioners (ALEP) where we joked and laughed as we pretended to air kiss and bump elbows to say hello, all the while singing happy birthday as we washed our hands. Not in a million years did we think that it would have been the last time we physically saw each other as an association, but I suppose, stranger things have happened haven’t they?!
Due to the way in which files had been handed over from various parts of the Firm, some files were hard copy and others were electronic. This presented a number of problems because not everything was available to me immediately. Clients had received out of office messages from my colleagues who were on furlough leave and because clients were perhaps on furlough themselves, and the world was in a state of panic, they wanted an immediate answer to their questions. In those early weeks of lockdown there were many late nights and weekends working to maintain the service levels, as after all, clients didn’t really care for the internal politics, they just wanted their deal done.
In a broad sense, enfranchisement is a mix of property litigation and residential conveyancing with a hint of corporate law and a dash of counselling for extremely anxious clients. It can be difficult to happily marry the immoveable deadlines with the fast-paced world of conveyancing and it takes a certain type of person to be able to balance the two without dropping the ball. In my case, it just makes my hair go grey!
Well, enough about me, you are here to learn about how Covid-19 impacted the way in which the enfranchisement world now functions. Here I will discuss how ALEP have once again been at the forefront of enfranchisement by helping its members to adapt and adjust to working in this new electronic environment. We will explore the issues faced by practitioners during the Covid-19 pandemic and provide useful tips on how to work more effectively in this brave new world.