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Covid-19 Service Update

COVID-19 Statement – Clark Willis Law Firm

(Updated 4th January 2021)

In light of the latest Government guidance to combat Corona virus, including restrictions on movement and self-isolation, we wish to re assure our clients that we remain open for business and so please do contact us in relation to your existing matters or indeed any new matters we can assist with. We will continue to operate a range of legal services during this period with sensible adjustments inline with Government guidance.

We fully appreciate that certain clients, especially those elderly and vulnerable, may be rightly concerned about accessing legal services given the magnitude of the COVID-19 virus and its consequential impact on personal interaction. As a business we have therefore implemented a number of practical measures to ensure you will have a continued service, whilst safeguarding your health and safety, and that of our team: 

Receptions
  1. As of the 5th January we have closed our receptions to the public and so customers will not be able to visit our reception areas as normal. This applies to both Darlington and Catterick Garrison.
  2. You will still be able to attend our offices to sign documents by pre booked appointments only.
  3. Whilst receptions are closed, bills can be paid by calling your local office, bank transfer, cheque or by payment link. Please speak to your legal adviser if you wish to set up a payment link.
  4. Customers are asked to email documents to us rather than post to assist the provision of services due to postal delivery restrictions and remote working employees. We are however, still accepting and sending post where email is not possible but are mindful of Post office service disruption.
Appointments & New Instructions
  1. Appointments are being undertaken by alternative means of communication, such as telephone or video call, where their matter is able to be dealt with in such manner. Please do not hesitate to contact us.
  2. We have increased our flexibility with appointments to assist those on the front line in accessing our services. Pre arranged appointments on an evening and weekend are available with priority being given to NHS and emergency services for these times.
  3. Our Wills team have put in place special provisions to provide an effective service, especially to those at high risk or required to self-isolate in order that they can still instruct us. This includes instructions via telephone, video call, email, post.
Team Safety
  1. To protect our employees, a number of our team are working remotely.
  2. Our onsite team are operating in a covid secure manner
  3. Like many businesses, a number of our team has been impacted by the latest school closures and so please bear with us if communications are occasionally not responded to immediately whilst the latest restrictions are in place

We are confident that we are able to continue to progress matters appropriately and have support and systems in place to ensure that, should members of our team be required to self-isolate, your matter will not be adversely affected but please be aware that timescales for completion of matters may be increased where government restrictions advance.

We are monitoring closely the developments relating to the spread of COVID19 and noting the updates and advice given by the UK Government, the World Health Organisation and other UK public bodies.

If you have any concerns please feel free to contact us via telephone at your local office or email enquiries@clarkwillis.co.uk.

 

Remote Family Court Hearings – Lockdown and Beyond by Tanya Bloomfield, Head of Family Department

The Current Situation

The first national lockdown in March brought rapid and unexpected change to Family hearings. Gone were the attendance of all parties at the Court building and we swiftly moved to telephone hearings. Over time the court has also used video platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Skype for Business. The Court has also started to roll out CVP which is also a video hearing platform.

From the middle of the Summer as lockdown eased, and Court buildings started to re-open, some Court hearings started to take place in person or ‘attended’ (as the Court describes them). This has generally been cases where ‘live evidence’ is being given. Some of these hearings have taken place as ‘hybrid’ which means some parties and their legal representatives attend at Court and some are on a video call.

The Court and all parties are also now working with electronic bundles which means all parties have the full case papers on their computer rather than a paper bundle. However for some hearings where ‘live evidence’ is being given some paper Court bundles are still used.

The Government has specifically confirmed that Court business is to continue and therefore nothing is really changing in this new lockdown from what has been happening in the last few months.

The Future – Will We Ever Go Back?

Inevitably the first national lockdown did lead to a number of court hearings being adjourned and so the court has been working in recent months to catch up on the backlog. This has generally meant that Court hearings relating to children have been prioritised over cases concerning finances. The Courts are still hearing finance cases but they are taking much longer due to the Court focusing on getting children cases heard.

For many years there have been calls for the Family Court system to modernise and streamline. It therefore seems unlikely that these forced moves to remote hearings and electronic paperwork, will be reversed. It seems we are very likely to continue to have a number of hearings undertaken either by telephone or video call. However equally a number of cases are likely to move back towards the traditional attendance at the Court building. This is likely to be considered on a case by case basis.

Early hearings known as ‘directions’ appointments are most likely to be undertaken remotely but hearings where ‘live evidence’ has to be given or where a party needs to attend at Court to properly take part in the hearing e.g because of a disability, are most likely to return to attendance at Court.

Have All the Changes Been Good?

That depends. On the whole a lot of solicitors and parties to Court hearings have welcomed not attending Court. For others this has been hard and they have struggled with the technology and not being present with others.

The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory have completed a consultation https://www.nuffieldfjo.org.uk/resource/remote-hearings-september-2020 and they continue to review the success of remote hearings.

The Court service and all those who use it will continue to reflect and adapt. It is hoped that the areas of concern will be addressed and over time we will find useful ways to use technology where appropriate.

If we can help you with an ongoing Court matter please contact our Family team on 01325 281111.

Employment Settlement Agreements

What is a Settlement Agreement?

A settlement agreement is a legally binding agreement which sets out the terms of agreement to settle a potential or existing employment related dispute.

Most commonly, such agreements are used to deal with termination of employment on mutually agreed terms. An employer may propose such an agreement in a situation where they do not wish to follow a lengthy process before terminating the employment, e.g: redundancy consultation and selection, or in a situation where the employment relationship has become unworkable.

The aim of the employer is to reach a binding agreement which will close the door to a legal action. There can also be a potential advantage to an employee in that they will achieve a financial settlement without the need to commence legal proceedings either through the civil courts or an employment tribunal, which often carry inherent risk that the case will be unsuccessful or the outcome is less favourable than the terms of settlement offered.

The respective merits of legal action and settlement agreement are matters upon which the employee should take legal advice.

What is the legal effect of a settlement agreement? 

By signing the agreement, the employee will receive a financial settlement in the form of payment of the sums and/or other benefits specified within the agreement, however in return, the employee will agree waive their right to bring potential legal actions of the types specified within the agreement. Draft agreements very often contain a lengthy list of potential claims, based upon employment legislation, breach of contract and personal injury.

It is therefore crucial that the employee is given the opportunity to seek independent legal advice regarding the agreement. Moreover, the agreement will always require a certification from the legal advisor that advice has been sought and provided.

The employee must understand that they will be waiving any right to bring legal proceedings in respect of the actions specified within the agreement. Furthermore, it is commonplace for such agreements to include a clause requiring the employee to repay the settlement monies, should they change their mind and pursue legal action.

What could I expect to receive by way of settlement?

A settlement agreement may comprise different payments or benefits with varying positions regarding liability for income tax and national insurance. Typically, payments made under a settlement agreement may include:-

  • A compensation payment, or ex gratia payment. HMRC rules allow a payment of up to £30,000 without deductions for tax or NIC if the payment is compensatory in nature.
  • PILON (Payment In Lieu of Notice). Such payments are subject to deduction of tax and NI.
  • Pay for unused accrued holidays, subject to deductions tax and NIC.

The employee will also usually receive their contractual salary payment and benefits up to the date of termination.

The terms of settlement offered vary according to the circumstances and it is important that the advisor considers and advises the employee appropriately regarding the tax implications of each payment or benefit offered.

How much will legal advice cost?

The general position is that an employer will agree to make a contribution towards the employee’s legal fees, typically the contribution will be between £200 to £400 plus VAT, which will, in the majority cases, cover the whole cost of the legal advice, however the fees payable can vary depending upon the complexity of the agreement.

No.12 – The Right Track

Those of you reading this who have followed our series of monochrome images highlighting some of the elements of our legal services may appreciate that we are ending the series with an image that perhaps is most associated with Darlington – a steam locomotion.  It was natural that the series ended with this image with our heritage of providing legal services to the people of Darlington going back nearly 50 years.

12 months ago the series started with our ‘Zebra’ who has now become synonymous with the firm. We embarked upon the 12 months series of black and white images to utilise our firms black and white colour scheme, also the colour scheme of Darlington. This choice was not incidental all those years ago but rather to reflect that as a firm we are proud to be headquartered in the heart of Darlington town center.

Whilst the railway is a clear part of Darlington’s history, it is also important to look to the future and the Council and associated organizations have some exciting plans for the development of the town  to continue to make the town a destination where people want to live and visit. As a business we must also look to continue to develop how we provide legal services so that we can continue to serve the community of Darlington from our offices in the town centre. The recent pandemic has highlighted the relevance of flexible IT and telecoms and our prior investment in these elements has meant that we have been able to continue to provide a full range of services throughout, albeit at a distance. We continue to recruit our future talent, whether legal or operational, and invest in training and developing existing staff as part of our clear strategic vision to ensure we remain  at the forefront of legal services in Darlington, across the Tees Valley and North Yorkshire for the next 50 years.

As we set out on this series of images, we highlighted that black and white also represents clarity which is one of the core focuses of our service – making legal issues easy to understand. The legal world, legislation and terminology can often be confusing to members of the public and cause frustration as to what the legal position may be. We believe that the legal world should be made simple. As a firm we explain options clearly, in plain English to ensure our clients fully understand their position to make informed choices. As a firm we are Lexcel accredited by the Law Society as a quality mark for our practice management and client care and our individual team members hold additional qualifications and accreditations relevant to their area of law meaning their is also substance and experience to our advice.

‘The Right Track’ is the final image in our series of monthly monochrome images to be featured over the last 12 months across our social media channels. Whilst you may not have a legal issues today, why not follow us  on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn to keep up to date with legal developments and know who to turn to the next time you may need a local, trusted solicitor to keep you on the right track. Whenever you have a need for personals legal advice, whether it is buying your first home, appointing guardians for young children as you start a family, needing Divorce advice, making a Will or other, our approachable and friendly team are here to help.

For more information on our firm please see www.clarkwillis.com

Increase in scams and frauds during property boom.

The lifting of lock down restrictions coupled with the stamp duty changes has seen a boom in the property market. As a result fraudsters are trying to take advantage of that situation. This has meant that there has been a huge increase in fraud attempts on Solicitors firm and their clients. This can range from email interception to firm impersonation. Fraudsters create email addresses to look very similar to firm email addresses and can try and dupe people into transferring money to bogus accounts.  It is therefore important to be absolutely vigilant with the following steps:

  • Check emails you receive carefully and in particular check email addresses
  • Look at the content of the email – does it look right?
  • Check any emails you receive asking for money- call the firm and speak to the team to check it is genuine
  • If you receive changed bank details – do not sent money and check
  • If in doubt    – check BEFORE sending any money.

 

We are all in the fightback together against the ever increasing and sophisticated fraudsters.  By following the above steps you will reduce your chances of being the victim of a fraud.

Coles Solicitors Closure – SRA Intervention Advice & Support

As a former Director and Head of the Wills & Probate team at Coles Solicitors for many years, it is extremely saddening to see that Kingly Solicitors Ltd, trading as Coles Solicitors, have been intervened by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

This is a deeply distressing time for clients and the staff at Coles, many of whom I have worked alongside for a number of years and, through no fault of their own, find the firm they work for shut down with immediate effect. I have spoken to a number of my former colleagues and it is testament to their integrity as individuals that their main concern at this time is the wellbeing of their clients. Naturally they will be worried over what is happening to their matters and the safety of Wills and other documents stored with Coles.

Having acted for a number of these clients personally over the years, some have contacted me directly to ask what an SRA Intervention means, worried over what is happening to their matters and the safety of Wills and other documents stored with Coles.  Given my historic involvement with the firm and to assist my former colleagues, I wanted to put some information out to support those affected.

What is an Intervention?

In an intervention, the SRA closes a solicitor’s practice immediately to protect clients. This means that Coles can no longer act for its clients and the SRA takes all ongoing matters, stored documents and clients money to keep safe and return them to clients. The offices are all closed and normally the telephone numbers will be diverted towards the Intervention Agents.

Anyone currently instructing Coles does not have to worry that their papers and money are secure.

Intervention Agents have been appointed and they have taken all of the files and documents for safe keeping. They will then start the process of reviewing what they have and contact clients in priority of urgency. Due to the sheer scale of the firm and number of client matters this may take several weeks before people are contacted.

I wish to stress that the SRA Intervention is due to the investigated actions of a small number of the new Kingly Solicitors Ltd owners and that the solicitors, support staff and former owners of Coles Solicitors have not been involved in any activities subject to the intervention and are now actively seeking new roles.

What do I need to do?

If you have an ongoing matter or Wills and other documents stored with Coles, you will need to appoint new solicitors to finalise your matter or to store those documents on your behalf. That firm will need to acquire your current file or documents from the agents.  If you would like our assistance in retrieving your matter or documents then please do not hesitate to contact me.

You can contact the Intervention Agents directly to provide your instructions and authority to them to transfer your file or documents to your new chosen law firm. You will need to write or email them with copies of relevant identification documents. Once they have located your file or documents they will then send these to you or your new solicitors.

Gordons LLP, 1 New Augustus Street, Bradford, BD1 5LL. Email: kingly@gordonsllp.com, Tel: 0113 227 0360.

How long will it take to get my file or documents?

I have been speaking with Gordons LLP about urgent matters and have been advised that approaching court hearings and property transactions that have exchanged contracts will be prioritised over other matters. It is likely to take several weeks before files and documents can be located and transferred to new firms to continue acting.

Due to these timescales it may be possible to undertake some work whilst the file is obtained and we would recommend clients engage a new law firm as soon as possible to understand their options.

Where can I get more advice & support?

Whilst I fully appreciate that this is a stressful time for Coles clients, I do wish to reassure people that safety of client matters and documents is the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s prime concern and that documents are safe. I also take the opportunity to extend the invitation to anyone affected by the intervention, who may be worried to contact me and the Clark Willis team for advice and reassurance.

 If you are a client and are worried, please call me on 01325 281111 or email a.spurr@clarkwillis.co.uk.

For more information on a SRA intervention, please see the SRA website https://www.sra.org.uk/consumers/faqs/faqs-for-consumers/#solicitorsclosed

No.11 – ‘Legal Problems – We Are All Ears’

The penultimate black and white image in our series of monthly images, entitled ‘Legal Problems? – We Are All Ears’, highlights a number of important elements of our legal service.

  1. Firstly, a timely reminder that during the Corona virus pandemic we have remained open and available to our clients to assist them with their ongoing and new legal matters across all our departments. Whilst we have had to deploy our advice in a remote manner, via telephone, video calls, emails and external appointments maintaining social distancing, we have continued to be available around the clock where necessary and ready to listen to our clients legal issues. Whilst some legal firms have temporarily closed their doors for some services, we have risen to the challenge of providing a full range of services during a pandemic. As we continue to evolve through the pandemic our team will continue to adapt to be available.

 

  1. Listening is often more important than talking. Only by listening to you fully can we then provide you with the correct advice and options available to you. We do not steer you towards a pre packaged product nor presume to tell you what you need rather listen to understand you, your concerns and priorities and then provide our professional legal advice.

 

  1. As with any service, the experience of instructing a legal firm can vary greatly, especially in the sale and purchase of residential property (conveyancing) which is often the first contact many people have with legal services. It can be frustrating when there is no direct person responsible for your matter and so we provide a dedicated specialist to deal with your matter so that you have a direct point of contact. We are rated 4.7/5 for customer satisfaction and appreciate that instructing solicitors can be daunting and often at emotional times, where aspects as basic as being able to speak to your solicitor on the phone can make a real difference and challenge the traditional reputation of solicitors appearing aloof.

 

  1. We also provide a core of personal legal services to ensure we can meet an individual’s legal requirements throughout their lifetime. Some of our core services include buying or selling Property, Will writing and estate planning, Divorce and Childcare, Personal Injury, Dispute Resolution and then finally assisting in sorting our matters through Probate when a person passes away. This core of services ensures that whatever your legal problem, we have the specialists to advise you or, in the rare instances where your requirements exceed those offered by your local high street legal practice, can point you in the right direction.

 

‘Legal Problems? We Are All Ears’ is the latest in a series of monthly monochrome images to be featured over a 12 month period across our social media channels to highlight some of the key elements of our service so be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to see the series as they are released.

For more information on our firm please see www.clarkwillis.com

Cycling Accidents & Highway Code Review

Following government advice to commuters to avoid public transport and use alternative forms of transport to work, cycling retailers are reporting significant increases in the sale of new bicycles and increased demand for parts and servicing.

Moreover, the Department for Transport and local authorities have expressed intention to invest heavily in cycle friendly transport infrastructure. At a local level, the Tees Valley was also selected as a pilot area to trial the use of E-Scooters with a view to legalisation of same.

The government has, in addition to announcements and initiatives to promote alternative forms of ‘active travel, initiated a review of the Highway Code for pedestrians and cyclists. One of the key elements of the proposed reform is establishing a road user hierarchy which places vulnerable road users at the top together new rules and guidance on distancing and road position in order give greater consideration to, and prioritisation of, the needs of vulnerable road users.

The increase in alternatives forms of transport, such as bicycles and E-Scooters does give rise to an increase in risk to users of those modes of transport, particularly if cars are being preferred to public transport. It is important that if the Highway Code is reformed in favour of vulnerable road users, motorists will also need to be mindful of any changes and modify their driving accordingly.

The risks to cyclists are laid bare in a Government report (March 2018)* which suggests that in the period 2011 to 2016, an average of 2 pedal cyclists were killed and 62 seriously injured per week in reported road casualties. Moreover 92% of cycling casualties and 75% of cycling fatalities involved collision between a cyclist and a motor vehicle.

The potential effects of a collision between motor vehicle and cyclist can be devastating for victims and their families, potentially resulting in life changing injuries and potentially fatality. The same can also be said of collision involving motor vehicles, including motor cycles, and pedestrians.

Whether you are a motorist, pedestrian, cyclist, motor cyclist or passenger, our expert Personal Injury team can assist you and provide sensible, practical legal advice to enable you to assist with the handling of claims arising from such incidents.

 

*https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/686969/pedal-cycle-factsheet-2017.pdf

Witnessing Wills by Video Link Legalised

The Government is introducing legislation to allow people to use video-conferencing technology for the witnessing of Wills being made during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ordinarily, a Will is required to be signed in the physical presence (or at least line of sight) of two witnesses which has caused a number of problems during the pandemic, especially with those self isolating. Largely, this is due to ensuring the person creating the Will fully understands its contents, has capacity and that there is no influence being exerted on them to dispose of their estate in that way. Whilst solicitors have been taking extra steps to ensure the formalities can still be complied with to protect clients, a number of providers have utilised video signing in a  desperate attempt to get Wills signed.

In response to this the law (the Wills Act 1837) will be amended to state that whilst this legislation is in force, the ‘presence’ of those making and witnessing wills includes a virtual presence, via video-link, as an alternative to physical presence. The legislation will apply to wills made since 31 January 2020 and will apply for Wills made up to two years from when the legislation comes into force (so until 31 January 2022), however this can be shortened or extended if deemed necessary.

Alex Spurr, head of our Wills team and member of the Society of trust & Estate Practitioners (www.step.org) and Solicitors for the Elderly welcomes the news, however urges caution.

“It will still be necessary to ensure that all the usual checks are carried out, that the video calls are accurately recorded and should only be used as a means of last resort.  Throughout the pandemic our team have been able to assist all clients except those hospitalised with signing Wills correctly and will continue to do so in preference to video signing. Where we move to execute a Will via video link under the legislation, we will then re sign the Will under normal protocols once we are able to do so for security purposes”

Full guidance is yet to be issued by industry bodies as to the exact recommended process for signing Wills by video link and once these have been issued we can provide further guidance to our clients on the availability of video link witnessing. It has been suggested that the following steps will be included.

  • The will maker should hold the front page of the will document up to the camera to show the witnesses, and then to turn to the page they will be signing and hold this up as well.
  • The will-maker should ensure that the witnesses can see them actually writing their signature on the will, not just their head and shoulders.
  • The same, original Will document should then be taken to the two witnesses for them to sign, ideally within 24 hours.
  • A second video call will then be required with the witnesses should hold up the will to the will maker to show them that they are signing it and should then sign it.

 

The same Will document is required to be signed by all the parties which may cause some issue for the Wills already witnessed remotely and cause them to be excluded form the legislation and remain invalid. our advice is to have your Wills resigned in a compliant manner to ensure that they are valid and anyone who has signed a Will remotely should speak to their provider and ask for written confirmation that their signature is in compliance with the new legislation. If you are aware that the above process was not followed, for example counter part documents were signed, then we would advise you to insist on it being now done so correctly. Anyone encountering problems with this from their provider should seek legal advice.

The signing section of the Will should also be amended to make reference to the fact the Will has been signed via video link.

For anyone wishing to make or update  a Will during the pandemic, our specialist team remain operational and ready to assist you.