This time last week, our biggest concerns as lawyers, mediators and parents was whether we would get through the piles of work on our desks and inboxes so we could get on a plane and enjoy a week of much needed March Break rest and relaxation. We know that many of our colleagues were in the same boat.
A lot has happened in a few short days. Vacations have been cancelled or interrupted. Children are home from school and daycare for at least three weeks. March Break camps are cancelled. Libraries, pools and rinks are closed, and sport seasons have been cut short.
Today, as lawyers and mediators, we are thinking about things we never thought we would have to worry about. We are focusing on a new reality where the very lifeblood of our business – court appearances, mediations and meetings – have become risky breeding grounds for the novel coronavirus. The management team of our office has spent the last three days considering how our business needs to change in this time of uncertainty to continue to meet the needs of our clients. While we don’t have all the answers, we have some ideas and we are committed to pivoting and flexing to face the challenges the days ahead will bring.
As with most small businesses in Nova Scotia, MDW Law has had to make immediate changes this week to continue to meet the needs of our clients while protecting the health of our employees. Meetings have been shifted to telephone or video conferencing format. Where a face-to-face meeting is absolutely necessary, for example to sign documents, we are using a dedicated large boardroom to allow for distancing. The table is cleaned after each use. We are no longer offering beverages to our clients and magazines have been removed from the reception area. We are closely monitoring provincial and federal directives and realize things can change on a moment’s notice.
Clients Need Legal Advice
We know that pressing legal issues cannot be put on pause. We meet new clients seeking advice and direction at all times of the year, sometimes due to planned events but often due to unexpected circumstances. People need reliable and timely information and guidance on their rights and obligations in the event of a separation or if they have sustained an injury in an accident. We expect new clients will continue to require these consultations, even though we may not be able to shake their hands or sit down in a meeting room together.
We also expect that new and existing clients will be faced with new issues that they did not anticipate, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as parenting obligations during self-isolation, expectations for parenting schedules when children no longer have school or extra-curricular obligations, child support or spousal support obligations when facing a job loss or work reduction and/or accessing insurance benefits and general information to assist in recovery from an accident.
We recognize that those seeking advice on a legal matter may be in self-isolation due to recent travel, immunocompromised, or unwell. Most are heeding government direction to practice social distancing. In light of such considerations, we have made changes to ensure our intake process can be entirely conducted by telephone or email. Our client forms are interactive and can be completed online. We have two paralegals dedicated to intake (family and personal injury). They will help clients arrange their initial consult, and subsequent meetings, by telephone or videoconferencing, i.e. Zoom.
Through technology, we are able to provide seamless service to clients. All our lawyers and staff are equipped to work remotely. Our office uses an electronic client management system called Trialworks, which allows all client documents, lawyer notes, emails, etc. to be saved in a central database that can be accessed from wherever we may be working. Our goal is to provide clients with the same level of service and quality regardless of whether we are in a physical or virtual office.
Routine tasks such as confirming a client’s identity or taking a client’s oath now require creative solutions. We are researching our legal obligations and crafting plans.
For now, most Nova Scotia courts remain open but have modified their procedures to create social distancing. Many court appearances are being conducted by phone this week or limiting who may attend. Small Claims Court has cancelled most matters until June and shifted the most pressing matters (such as eviction hearings) to telephone format. It would not be surprising if other courts in the province followed suit. Courts in other provinces have announced cancellations and shutdowns, which is understandable in the current crisis. Courthouse common areas have high traffic flow, corridors are often tightly packed as parties wait for their matters to be called, lawyers and clients often sit close together, they hand documents to clerks and witnesses.
If Nova Scotia courts cancel settlement conferences, trials, or even close their doors, there will be hundreds of individuals and families who are no longer able to resolve their matters as they had planned. For many, court was the last resort and it will be devastating to have that option delayed or unavailable.
Other Forms of Dispute Resolution
We are able to offer an alternative form of dispute resolution to Nova Scotians who may not be able to turn to the courts to resolve family law matters as planned in the coming weeks or months. We are, this week, modifying our already existing mediation process so it can be entirely conducted remotely. Each party will meet with a mediator by video conferencing for an intake session to determine if the matter is appropriate for mediation. With the use of a smart phone or computer, clients will be linked together in a virtual mediation. Documents will be shared remotely. If parties wish to have their lawyer present and involved in the mediation, the lawyer can be connected from either the same location as the client or a separate location.
MDW Law is able to offer med/arb and arbitration services by similar means. This option ensures that resolution will be reached if the parties are unable to agree on the appropriate resolution, and will provide some certainty in a time of enormous uncertainty.
Mediation and arbitration services ensure that parties need not put their dispute resolution on hold in this unprecedented time. Clients can be proactive and creative in finding a new way to tackle existing problems and can even do so from the comfort of their own home or office.
New clients, existing clients or lawyers interested in any of the above options can contact an MDW Law intake paralegal at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 902-422-5881.