Frontline legal aid firms have been urged to let staff work from home to keep solicitors ‘as safe as possible’ during the pandemic. However, the Gazette understands that at least one large criminal practice has said it cannot facilitate remote working and cannot pay staff who elect to stay at home.
The London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association implored firms to use technology to avoid the need for office-based work. A spokesperson said: ‘With cloud or remote access solutions case work can be performed at home. Client consultations can, in the most part, be conducted by telephone or video call, or if necessary postponed.
‘We empathise with those legal aid firms whose IT infrastructure is not as modern as other firm types; it is hard to invest when the future of legal aid funding is in doubt. However, we urge firms to innovate to find solutions that will enable staff to work from home at this time. Our staff are our biggest asset and deserve to be kept as safe as possible.’
However, the Gazette understands a criminal legal aid practice told staff last month it cannot embrace firm-wide home working and no one who stays at home should expect to be paid unless a government scheme emerges or an alternate arrangement is agreed with the firm.
A memorandum seen by the Gazette told staff that while ‘individual health safety and wellbeing concerns are understandable and to be wholly embraced’ business survival is ‘paramount’.
Bill Waddington, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, said: ‘Most [practices] I have spoken to are running their businesses from home if they can or they are running a skeleton staff…My experience is that firms are furloughing as many staff as they possibly can in order to assist the financial circumstances'’.
Meanwhile, the Law Society said: 'We know the vast majority of law firms will always try to do the right thing by their staff but it is important as a membership organisation that we remind firms that solicitors should only go into the office where this is absolutely necessary and work cannot be done from home.'
Emploment specialist Jodie Hill, managing director of Thrive Law, said: ‘We take the view that it is never impossible for anyone in the legal industry to work from home, except those who are required to speak in court scenarios. For solicitors’ firms, it doesn’t require a large technological change to follow the government guidance and allow everyone to work from home.’
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.