COVID-19 Consumer Legal Newsletter: 22/04/2020—Issue 2
Welcome to the second COVID-19 update from Beagles Insight—the research arm of the LegalBeagles Consumer Legal Forum. This free advice forum has over 100,000 registered users and has helped members of the public deal with over 800,000 legal problems since it started in 2007.
In this edition, we reflect on a month of UK lockdown and its impact at the formal, court action end of consumer issues as well as issues which appear to be bubbling to the surface in the form of queries and searches on the forum.
Insights from the Forum
There have been 177,811 unique visitors to the Legal Beagles forum since the UK’s lockdown began on 23 March all researching specific consumer issues through the forum.
- Employment queries and searches dominate the forum, with 40-45% of all active forum users over the past month concerned about this topic. The most researched employment issues include a large number of questions relating to furlough both from employer and employee perspectives, as well as questions around redundancy, sick pay entitlements and deduction of both wages and hours.
- Wills and inheritance questions have emerged over the past month as the second most researched topic with 16% of active site users engaged in this area. Multiple threads have been raised asking about video witnessing of documents.
- Family law searches have been rising gently throughout the lockdown. COVID-19 related issues arising have been on child contact and social distancing, as well as the separation and splitting of assets in the current environment.
- On the other hand, Court procedures and issues relating to money claims have flatlined over the past month, suggesting that whilst the courts are largely shut during the COVID-19 crisis, consumer concerns have turned to more immediate income-related worries.
COVID-19 related matters about employment have continued to focus on the operational details of the Job Retention Scheme with the largest concerns continuing to be felt by those with significant amounts of non-discretionary pay, such as overtime.
Some initial questions, e.g. over the right to work whilst furloughed have been clarified and been replaced by new ones, such as the employer’s right to require employees to take at least some leave during their period of furlough. Other questions around employer rights have involved changes to contract and job roles due to business demand, e.g. employer rights to move an employee from a shop floor to a warehouse.
Queries and searches on redundancy have noticeably increased as concerns rise about longer-term prospects once the job retention scheme ends.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
In this section we highlight best practice, who’s not doing enough and what could be improved.
The Good – banks and missed payments
- Clarification by the banks of how they will treat, and report, missed payments during the COVID-19 crisis is to be welcomed. Credit reference agencies are now providing clear guidance on payment freezes. Three months is the current time period allowed for a freeze.
The Bad – employers and furlough
- Employer behaviour remains a major blackspot. Some employers are still not properly handling communication about furlough and in handling employee expectations of claiming on the Job Retention Scheme. Longer-term prospects for employees remain the biggest doubt and on this, employers have little concrete to communicate.
Could do better – MCOL and consumers
- Consumers are unclear on the status of claims. Money Claims Online (MCOL) is still operating and new claims being accepted. However, the volume of cases stuck in the system will grow and likely create a logjam of cases requiring hearings. It appears that small claims, unless they are considered urgent or can be done by phone, are becoming stayed due to lack of final hearing availability, therefore the position on the application of interest on Section.69 County Court cases should be addressed.
What can be done?
- A communication effort to make sure that consumers realise that court claims they may have been defending have not been dropped and could be resumed. Marginal cases should be encouraged to settle.
- There is still clearly a need for more information for employers and employees about the furlough scheme.
- Clarification on stay of proceedings and who will pay proceedings and application fees to restart.
- Current guidance forbids electronic witnessing of documents, however, growing interest in the issue suggests that flexibility on this could create enormous value. A good example of this comes from Illinois, USA whose governor J.G Pritzker has issued updated guidelines on the services of notary publics and the remote witnessing of document signings. The guidelines are part of Executive Order 2020-14 issued on 26 March in response to social distancing recommendations linked to the coronavirus outbreak. More here.
What needs to be done
- Require local authorities to suspend bailiff actions, which would be in line with suspension of all evictions.
- Banks need to consider whether/how they report negative activity to credit reference agencies during the crisis. This will be a hidden impact which could seriously affect recovery if credit files are further damaged.
- Credit Reference agencies to be advised to publish COVID-19 information pages.
- We do however note that the FCA is currently consulting on proposals for temporary financial relief during the crisis, which may provide credit respite for many consumers. Require local authorities to use traffic wardens only for COVID-19 related enforcement (e.g. ambulance access).
- Government should suspend the use of MoneyClaim Online for issuers of private parking tickets for the duration of the crisis.
- Require the British Parking Association to tell its members to stay at home, they are non-essential workers (even if ticketing can be undertaken solo). All existing private parking charge notices should be suspended till after crisis.
- Government should provide information to all employers particularly small businesses about the correct process with regard to their employees and their contracts of employment when asking staff to go on furlough.
- More guidance is needed on the Job Retention Scheme both for workers and employers of workers on zero-hours contracts and other commission or bonus related compensation arrangements.
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