Tuesday, 16 June 2020
Our Lifetime Legal team last provided an update on 1 April 2020 as the unprecedented lockdown restrictions had taken hold and we all faced a very different way of working. With our own office closed to the public as well as the Scottish Court Service, the Office of the Public Guardian and Registers of Scotland all effectively closed down it would be fair to assume that the lockdown period would have been a quiet time for our team. However, that has definitely not been the case and it has been a very busy period for us over the last few months.
We thought it would be helpful to provide an update on both how we have adapted to the changes and any keys changes to Government services connected to Lifetime Legal work now that lockdown is easing.
One of the major hurdles to our way of working is that we are unable to meet with clients in person under the restrictions. Thankfully, the Law Society of Scotland addressed this problem quickly and issued helpful guidance to ensure Solicitors could continue to put Wills and Powers of Attorneys in place for clients.
We have completed many new Wills and Powers of Attorneys for our clients during lockdown and have systems in place to continue to handle enquiries from the initial enquiry right through to the signing stage. We can arrange telephone or video call appointments with clients to discuss matters. We are also happy to receive instructions by email or post and we can then call you to confirm your instructions and talk through your circumstances. We will send you the drafts for approval electronically and then prepare the final versions for you to sign. If you do not have printing facilities at home, we can still arrange for copies to be sent by post.
The lockdown restrictions on movement and social contact have also created challenges in relation to validly signing Wills and Powers of Attorney. The Law Society of Scotland and the Office of the Public Guardian have issued guidance allowing Solicitors to use video conferencing where no witness is physically present. Subject to the usual robust procedures in place to assess capacity and prevent fraud/undue influence, we can witness Wills and sign the required certificates regarding capacity for Powers of Attorney having met with clients “virtually”. We have used FaceTime, Whatsapp calls and Zoom to put Wills and Powers of Attorneys in place for many of our clients during the lockdown period.
We would anticipate that even as the restrictions ease, as long as some variation of social distancing is required, these video calls will continue to be a useful option for clients. The Law Society have recognised this by recently extending the rules regarding virtual witnessing to also apply to legal documents which require to be notarised such as affidavits.
During this busy period, we have also been able to utilize Zoom video conferencing technology to hold virtual Trustees meetings for some of our Charitable Trust clients. This has ensured that we have been able to make much-needed donations on behalf of these Trusts to charities and organisations who are all struggling with the financial and social impact of the pandemic.
The Scottish Court Service has been running a centralised hub system and, until very recently, our applications for Confirmation (the court document required by Executors when administering an estate) were having to be sent to Falkirk Sheriff Court. However, Dunfermline Sheriff Court has recently re-opened and is now processing Confirmation applications. We usually always have a large caseload of estate administration work and we have, sadly, noticed a particular increase in estate administration work in recent weeks. So far, we are finding the courts are processing Confirmation applications and associated work quickly.
The Office of the Public Guardian (OPG) have been operating on the basis of a skeleton staff and were only processing a very limited amount of work if it was required on an urgent basis. We have been able to ensure that Powers of Attorney that were required urgently were still processed so that families who were in difficult situations were able to operate the Powers of Attorney rather than having to wait until lockdown had been lifted. We are continuing to submit Powers of Attorney for registration and have noticed that the OPG is now processing registrations again. However, there is a significant backlog and they are currently processing Powers of Attorney that they had received for registration as far back as January of this year. Hopefully, the timescales for processing Powers of Attorney will improve as more of the OPG staff return to work
We have all experienced a huge amount of change to our lives as a result of the pandemic. The measures that have been taken to control the virus have meant we have all had to adapt significantly in how we live and work. It has been and indeed continues to be, an extremely difficult time for many. As we now head into our “new normal”, one thing has not changed – Stevenson & Marshall LLP are here to help.