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The Coronavirus Bill/The Coronavirus Act 2020 – What does it mean for Dispute Resolution?

25.03.2020 Dispute resolution

Benjamin Atkin

Benjamin Atkin Associate, Solicitor Advocate

As I write this article I wonder whether, by the time it is finished, it will still be current. The news is developing so quickly that we are running out of paper (or would be if so much of it hadn’t already been stockpiled...). The Government is doing all it can and that means legislation.

The “Coronavirus Bill” is now available widely online and can be found on the Parliamentary publications website (link here). It runs to 329 pages and it is suggested in the bill that it could remain in place until March 2022.

In this article, I will touch on what this new bill, if passed in its current form, will mean for dispute resolution, litigation and access to the Court process. Whilst engaging in a legal battle amidst the ongoing uncertainty is almost inconceivable, this legislation will have an impact on all of us involved in or contemplating litigation when we are past the immediate crisis. We will then once again need to turn to how we can resolve disputes, which cannot be resolved by agreement, with reference to this new legislation.

Changes of note for litigation in the bill are:

  1. The transfer of any liability incurred by an individual treating or caring for someone suffering with or suspected to have coronavirus. Liability includes loss, personal injury or even death occurring as a result of a breach of a duty of care, being indemnified (note – financially covered) by an “appropriate authority”. The bill is not explicit about what that means, but one imagines it may include either a Clinical Commissioning Group, Trust or the Government itself. Essentially there is provision to absolve individuals of any legal liability for mistakes which may be made during the treatment of coronavirus patients;
  2. HMRC may, by regulation, make it a statutory obligation for employers to pay for sick pay during COVID-19 in situations where the virus has rendered a member of staff unable to work. That sum is to be funded by HMRC. The sum paid by the employer (pending payment by HMRC) may be used to reduce an employer’s outstanding payments due to HMRC;
  3. Court hearings will now take place via telephone and video link. There is provision in the bill that the Court may direct that a hearing is to be broadcast for the purpose of enabling members of the public to see and hear the proceedings. The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it will now conduct all of its business remotely;
  4. In situations where it is not directed by the Court that the proceedings may be broadcast, that may interfere with the principles of open justice. It is a founding principle of our democracy that, unless there are exceptional reasons to depart from the position of open justice, Court hearings should not be conducted behind closed doors. Whilst it will remain the case that documents referred to in those hearings will fall into the public domain (and that judgments will be prepared); it is unclear whether audio of the proceedings will still be recorded and therefore whether individuals with a financial interest in the action will be able to obtain transcripts of the proceedings.

If you have suffered financial loss or consider that you may have a claim, Ince can help.

Article authors:

Benjamin Atkin