As the COVID crisis continues, firms and industries are looking at long term changes to mitigate losses and implement new ways of functioning. While consumer goods and manufacturing have been adversely affected, the legal industry too has been feeling the brunt of their constricted revenue flows. M&A activity, in particular, has been severely impacted due to valuation concerns and liquidity crunches. Cross-border transactions have dried up entirely due to the closure of borders. Delays in obtaining regulatory approvals have further thrown a spanner in the works for all parties involved. The closure of courts in India has led to an extension of the limitation prescribed under general or special laws. The Supreme Court ordered that the period from March 15, 2020, onwards will not be included in the time limit prescribed for filing an action in a court or tribunal under a general law such as the Limitation Act, 1936 or under any special law where the period of limitation is prescribed.
This crisis has also forced the legal administrative framework to undergo massive shifts. Indian courts are now in a state of urgent-only, online-only mode with e-filing of cases and establishing a virtual interface in which judges and lawyers or litigants can be on the two ends of a digital framework in front of their respective monitors or terminals, eliminating human contact. While the urgent-only part of this will be removed after the lockdown the online-only part can and should be continued. Remote working and electronic communication can be the fundamental pillars on which the judiciary of tomorrow should be built. Modern technology can lead us to the utopia that is global access to justice where the function of the court becomes a service available to all rather than a ‘place’. In a span of past few weeks, we’ve seen proof of this monumental shift with Gujarat and Kerala High Courts holding online hearings and the midnight Nirbhaya hearing. There are several benefits to continuing with an online mode of functioning. Parties would no longer have to travel to courts, online arguments and technology-based case management would lead to fewer adjournments and speedier case closure. We would enjoy a judicial process that would no longer be dependent on or restricted by the limitations of physical infrastructure.
“Remote working is a tried and tested model for arbitrations, and courts can adopt it very easily. Hiccups are only a mindset problem. Article 141/ 142 can be used for this to be effected in a timely manner.” – Justice. (Retd.) B. N. Srikrishna, Supreme Court of India
It’s just not the courts that have gone remote, life for a lawyer in India now revolves around on-demand video and remote litigation. Large legal firms including JSA, Trilegal, Khaitan & Co, AZB & Partners, S&R Associated, Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co, among others have mandated a stringent work from home policy for all of their employees. Most of them have already begun implementing business continuity plans that have at their foundation a robust technology backbone that has led to participation in hearings over conference calls. It seems business, as usual, can be conducted from the safety of one’s home.
“We have business continuity plans which will allow us to continue providing support to our clients. An internal core group has been monitoring this situation and we are taking all steps (including IT support) to ensure that lawyers work from home. These measures are meant to protect the health of our personnel and clients.” -S&R Associates
For lawyers in the making, the Bar Council of India has issued a letter to all VCs, Deans’, Principals’ instructing them to move to online classes to cover the remaining syllabus and academic discipline as far as practically possible. This is a welcome move and must be encouraged. This would also be the time to set up and integrate with these online classes a robust continuing education platform for lawyers. This would enable them to keep updating and sharpening their legal skills over time. Lawyers who have been taught online would have little trouble working online and would make ideal members of global, remote work, legal teams.
A post corona legal world could almost be a paperless world. With the absolute deployment of online enterprise-wide systems, cloud-based applications, and a tech-driven judiciary, we could significantly reduce the paper footprint the legal profession has, to almost zero. With office-less firms the resources sunk in physical infrastructure could be put to better use. We already have the technology for secure, remote, document review, and management. Worktime during the Covid 19 crisis is proving that geographical proximity has little bearing on productivity or team dynamics.
While we emerge from this global pandemic stronger, we can only hope that our shared vulnerability forges deeper, humane bonds that help us stand taller and support each other within firms and with our clients.