The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought considerable turbulence to our daily lives and the functioning of the global economy. The creation of so much uncertainty over the livelihoods and jobs of many across our communities has added to the global concern about the health and wellbeing of our populations. The legal sector is no different; it is striving to deliver services to clients in the face of unprecedented challenges created by mandatory social distancing and restrictions on movement.

We know there are many ways in which lawyers are needed, including for businesses working through the crisis, clients suffering relationship breakdown or child contact issues and ensuring the continuing operation of the criminal justice system. The central role of the legal profession in promoting social cohesion and supporting the growth of the economy has been highlighted by the crisis. In seeking to respond to the challenges faced, as a professional body we have sought to put in place a strategy which recognises the difficulties faced by our members and to identify practical ways to ease those challenges.

The Society has taken a number of initiatives to support the profession in Northern Ireland through this crisis. Firstly, we have engaged and continue to engage with government and stakeholders to get the maximum safe operation of our courts. We have sought to promote access to justice and the security of its base of providers through the continued processing of legal aid in the form of an interim payments scheme. We have also encouraged the safe working of administrative systems which underpin the property market. This engagement has prioritised unlocking as much of the justice system as possible in a manner consistent with legal requirements and guidelines on public health. This will help firms to be in a position to transact as much business as possible throughout this disruption and to encourage systems and processes across the justice space to ready for operation under continued social distancing.

The second pillar of this support has been to provide our members with as much up to date information as possible on the business support packages emerging from the local administration in Belfast and from the UK Government. It has been important to track and collate information on a wide range of schemes which are being revised and updated on an ongoing basis. These have included support on key business overheads such as paying staff salaries and business overheads, cash grants and access to low cost loans. We have urged government to ensure appropriate business support continues to be available as the economy begins a slow path to recovery.

The third element of our approach has been the provision of direct support from the Society to our members and trainee lawyers. The Chief Executive of the Society established a contingency planning group to direct the Society’s response at the outset of the crisis. Among the practical measures implemented has been a refund initiative on registration fees for 2020. This has released further liquidity to firms at a time of need. Adjustments have been made to the Society’s Regulation and CPD programmes to ensure they operate appropriately in the context of the pandemic and provision is being made for trainees to continue their legal education.

The spirit and collegiality of our profession has shone through in times of challenge. Connections have been made and renewed during time spent physically apart. With current indications pointing towards a phased withdrawal of social restrictions in the coming weeks and months, this spirit will continue to be drawn upon. There is more to do as businesses are charting a path to recovery and our work as a Society has sought to assure members we will continue to do what we can to support them in that mission.

Rowan White, President, Law Society of Northern Ireland