Lockdown update: Video signings, emergency appeal and more

Taylor: Innovative approach

A group that contains both a regulated and unregulated law firm has launched what it says is the first video-signing service for statutory documents.

360 Law Group said Companies House has confirmed that it will accept declarations of solvency sworn by video.

The system, V-Sign, was initially developed for insolvency practitioners – who cannot sign off members’ voluntary liquidations without a solicitor witnessing the declaration of solvency – but any statutory documents may be signed this way, with the exception of deeds.

Solicitors can hold video calls, validate identity documents and digitally sign documents in the same session. These are recorded, and a .wav file is then made available along with the signed and witnessed document.

Robert Taylor, chief executive and general counsel of 360 Law Group, said 30 insolvency practitioners have so far made use of the service.

“This is a further example of our innovative approach and continued drive to make law more cost effective and accessible for businesses the world over,” he said.

“In these unprecedented economic circumstances, where meetings cannot take place, we can help by delivering remote law services to businesses. Our recent work will reshape the future of an industry which traditionally has been driven by face-to-face meetings.”

The group includes regulated law firm 360 Law Services and unregulated business 360 Business & Private Client Law.

In other coronavirus-related news:

The Access to Justice Foundation and London Legal Support Trust have launched an emergency appeal to kick-start a new National Advice Fund to support law centres, specialist independent agencies and some Citizens Advice services.

Nearly £115,000 has already been raised at the time of writing, and the first £200,000 of donations will be matched.

The organisers said that, unless urgent action was taken, “half of the frontline legal advice centres will permanently close and those that remain will be forced to reduce staff and services”.

Ruth Daniel, chief executive of the Access to Justice Foundation, said: “Covid-19 has put further stress on what is already a fragile sector. Following years of cuts, the sector is now close to breaking point.

“Many agencies will be forced to close over the next two to 12 months unless urgent action is taken by the wider social justice community.”

Click here to make a donation.

The Equity Release Council has temporarily lifted its requirement that customers receive face-to-face legal advice. The agreed alternative approach involves a combination of written advice and documented video or telephone calls ensuring “multiple, mandatory contact points between the solicitor and customer before committing to take out an equity release plan”.

During the lockdown, the mandatory physical witnessing of a client’s signature on the mortgage deed can be carried out by an independent adult witness of the client’s choosing, who will also be subject to identity checks and due diligence, the council said.

The Conveyancing Association has set out measures for member firms to adopt to keep lease administrators up-to-date on lease assignments and ensure prompt payments during the pandemic.

These require conveyancers to send documents by e-mail rather than post, and make all payments electronically, while lease administrators have been urged to authorise HM Land Registry to accept conveyancer evidence that there has been confirmation of compliance with the alienation provisions required for lifting a restriction against registration, if the lease administrator is not able to provide a certificate of consent in required form within 20 working days.

The association acknowledged that this was a departure from previous practice but said there were major concerns over cancelled registrations where some lease administrators might be struggling to deal with paperwork during the crisis.

Both sides are also calling on the Land Registry to help the industry by relaxing the rules on accepting deeds with e-signatures.

An experienced property solicitor has called for special conditions to be included in house move contracts which are trapped by the coronavirus pandemic.

Simon Ainsworth, a partner at North-West firm Napthens, said one way of keeping deals alive during the crisis was to insert a one-off coronavirus special clause in sale contracts.

This would allow parties to exchange contracts while maintaining social distancing advice yet enabling either party to delay completion because of factors caused by Covid-19, such as lenders being unable to release funds, removal firms not being available, clients self-isolating or being diagnosed with the virus or being unable to have signed and witnessed documents in place.

Similarly, a ‘get out’ clause allowing people to walk away from the sale without incurring substantial penalties would need to be included should the social distancing advice still be in place in a few months, he added.

Mr Ainsworth said: “The purpose of a coronavirus special condition in sale contracts would be to ensure house moves can be put on pause and completed quickly once the advice is lifted. Equally, should it last for an extended period of time, or a person’s circumstances change as a result of the virus, a get-out clause would allow them to walk away without being seriously penalised.”

The Law Society has published a variety of guidance and tools to support solicitors during the pandemic, most recently guidance on the coronavirus job retention scheme as part of its business continuity toolkit, and on renewing professional indemnity insurance.

The latter notes: “It’s likely that insurers will be assessing business continuity and preparedness for any further Covid-19 (or other) disruptions more rigorously.”

The Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division yesterday launched a pilot community platform where members can still talk to each other and receive relevant content and updates specific to them.

Members should download the Ugenie app to join.

City law firm Withers provided the pro bono legal advice to help former Formula 1 boss Ron Dennis launch SalutetheNHS.org, a not-for-profit initiative to provide a million meals over the next three months to critical NHS workers, both those working in hospitals and others who are infected and self-isolating at home.

A wide variety of businesses are involved, include Absolute Taste, one of Britain’s largest catering groups, parcel delivery service Yodel and Tesco, which is donating all the food and ingredients

Withers has also worked with not-for-profit organisation masks4NHSHeroes to help register it as a charity. The organisation is looking to raise funds to purchase personal protective equipment to supplement the NHS’s efforts to properly protect health workers as they treat patients with Covid-19.

Starting with an initial target of £200,000 on Crowdfunder, this was surpassed in a short space of time, including large donations from actors James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch, and masks4NHSHeroes has so far raised £1.5m.

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