Could the COVID-19 crisis provide an opportunity for some radical thinking about our society?

For the first time ever, this month's Journal is published in digital format only. I know many of you like to pick up your paper magazine as a break from the online world, but the new format is another sign of our very much altered reality. The Journal too is affected by the coronavirus restrictions, and this is our way of trying to keep delivering the regular content.

Solicitors have been hit hard by the shutdown. The Society’s widely welcomed £2.2 million support package for the profession comes in response, it states, to 90% of firms facing reduced turnover (some very severely reduced), and almost a quarter of solicitors in private practice having been furloughed. Such figures, sadly, must mean real distress and financial hardship for many readers.

Despite the daily discussions of when and how the lockdown will begin to be lifted, it seems unlikely that we will see full resumption of business life for some weeks if not months yet, or that when we do, there will be any early return to the level of activity of that age BC (Before COVID) just a couple of months ago.

How are we to travel to work safely? Share a room, or office facilities, safely? Meet clients, or go to court safely? So many questions, reflected across virtually all types of business, have to be answered before our freedoms can be restored, and I haven’t even mentioned our social lives. There is a clear onus on employers in the legal sector, as in every other, to respect individual employees’ vulnerabilities and needs as they seek to open up again. Since in most cases those who still have work have been able to operate from home, that really should not cause a major issue.

The shock to the economy will be felt for a long time to come, and I do wonder how conventional thinking can deal with the scale of Government borrowing and support that already has been and will continue to be required. It is not a good sign that ministers have begun to speak in terms of furloughed workers becoming “addicted” to their status. How can a free market operate in what will remain a significantly unfree society while restrictions continue?

An enlightened approach might recognise an opportunity to rethink the whole system of support offered by our society for those in need, as happened following the ultimate World War 2 victory whose anniversary we celebrate this month. It might consider how those economic, social and cultural rights that have to date remained on the margins of our legal order could be given more substance. These are admittedly very big questions. But the beginning of a new era, which is where I believe we could be, should be the time to address them.

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