Welcome to the first 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.Over the coming weeks, we will highlight the key legal concerns that are being raised in our forum as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, why we think these issues are surfacing and, where possible, identify the “fixes” that could help.   

Insights from the Forum  
Key Statistics:  There were 40,000 unique visitors to the Legal Beagles forum in the last week of March (23-29) and their main legal concerns were:
Parking/motoring (18%)  – mostly concerns about enforcement actions by local authorities or private parking companies.
Court money claims/debt (10%)  –  include a range of  issues from dealing with  the MoneyClaims Online portal, dealing with debt purchase companies, baliffs etc
Employment issues (7.5%) – employment contract concerns, possible claims against employers, redundancy and furlough.Some of these concerns reflect the world pre-COVID-19 and so this last week of March will provide us with a baseline against which to gauge changing worries over the coming months. 

This week’s most asked questions:  COVID-19 related matters have dominated the new questions posted on the forum and employment has been the standout issue amongst these, with forum members raising questions such as:
How is the job retention scheme going to operate?
What will be included in my salary as a furloughed employee as I work a lot of overtime?
Can my employer change my terms and conditions of employment?
But a new, persistent consumer concern is emerging:
Can I get a refund on any event/travel arrangements that have been cancelled due to COVID-19?

What is the underlying story?
EmploymentThe employment section of the forum is now filling up with queries from workers who have been told by their employers that they will be part of the Job Retention (or Furloughed Workers’) Scheme.

Frequently voiced concerns include:
How salary calculations are to be made, especially for those on zero-hours contracts or whose regular salaries include a lot of overtime or bonus payments?
How contracts are to be varied and what other conditions might be imposed? (e.g. will furloughed workers be able to work temporarily elsewhere or volunteer?).
Many individuals visiting the forum want answers to their specific circumstances, not just generic information which is still high level and lacking in detail.

Money Claims
Many hundreds of thousands of events and travel arrangements have been cancelled as a result of the lockdown and there is great uncertainty about how to claim back refunds.

Travel seems to be a particular problem where people are being caught in a loop between insurer and travel provider, with each one saying it is the responsibility of the other.  How the resulting losses on these cancellations are to be dealt with, is in many cases still unclear.

Although fewer car journeys are now being made, the evidence on our forum suggests that many parking tickets are still being issued by local authorities and private parking organisations with the threat of eventual court action.There is a lack of coherent information either from local authorities or private parking contractors regulated by the British Parking Association  (BPA), which has a ‘wait and see’ policy on its website.
We expect the mix of issues that are the focus of attention in the forum to change from week to week as the crisis unfolds.

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 
Major debt purchase companies Some of the major debt purchase companies are taking a very sensible approach. No new court claims, enforcement or outbound calling is being undertaken during the crisis. This single action will help to alleviate general pressure on the court system.

Could do better
Banks and credit reference agencies Banks are offering significant support to struggling customers including no fees for missed payments. However, in many instances, they are still going to record missed payments on people’s credit files, with a potential knock-on effect on their creditworthiness for the next six years.

Having reviewed the major credit reference sites, it is notable that none are displaying any COVID– 19 related information or support.

Bad behaviour
Whilst many businesses are simply in survival mode and want to do the best by their employees, the forum is throwing up examples of some egregious employer behaviour. In certain sectors, especially hospitality and catering, it’s becoming clear that many workers have not had contracts or are now being presented with new contracts to sign with no-notice termination clauses.

Some employers not properly handling communication around putting their staff on furlough and claiming for the Job Retention Scheme. Putting staff on furlough is a variation to an individual’s contract unless provision is already made in the contract. Unless an agreement is reached to put someone on furlough this may leave businesses open to future claims by their employees. 

What might the crisis mean for the civil justice system?

Although most current civil cases are being stayed for three months to free up courts for essential applications, these delayed cases could create a potential logjam later this year or in early 2021. Given the already overloaded nature of the courts, this could prove very problematic in 6-12 months’ time.

We see the following as particular sources of future problems for the courts:

The continuation of parking enforcement activity is a significant risk to the ability of the courts to cope in future. The MoneyClaims Online portal and the Civil Court system have experienced significant pressure since Cavendish Square Holding BV v Talal El Makdessi and ParkingEye Ltd v Beavis [2015] UKSC 67.

The lack, so far, of any joined-up approach to credit reporting between banks, credit agencies and debt purchase entities could lead to default actions. Thought needs to be given on whether banks need to take a different approach with defaulted accounts for the next 6-12 months.

There could be an impact on the Employment Tribunal system for claims by employees against employers for breach of contract, unlawful deduction of wages if the way in which furlough is handled is not correctly administered by employers.

What needs to be done 

Money Claims/Debt
Require local authorities to suspend bailiff actions, which would be in line with the 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.

If you have any thoughts, comments or questions let us know on mail@hooktangaza.comBeagles InsightBeagles Insight is a collaboration between LegalBeagles and Hook Tangaza, established to draw research and policy insights from the LegalBeagles forum.

LegalBeagles is the largest and longest-running consumer legal forum in the world and has been guided since its inception in 2007 by the principles of providing free and anonymous support, to consumers on a range of legal issues, through a community of dedicated and experienced individuals.

Hook Tangaza is an independent consulting, research and advisory house working at the heart of the legal services sector. Hook Tangaza uses evidence-based approaches to assist clients with managing and innovating through periods of change.