COVID-19 SPECIAL

Lawyers report surge in queries related to issues triggered by coronavirus pandemic

A frequent query to lawyers is on how businesses or freelancers can be freed from contractual obligations.
A frequent query to lawyers is on how businesses or freelancers can be freed from contractual obligations.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Singaporeans are flocking to law firms amid the coronavirus pandemic for advice on issues ranging from wrongful dismissal to visitation rights for divorced parents.

Lawyers report a spike in inquiries on such issues in recent weeks, with some estimating the increase at about 20 per cent to 30 per cent more than usual.

Mr Nicolas Tang, managing director of Farallon Law Corporation, for instance, said his firm has experienced a two to threefold increase in employment-related queries during the circuit breaker period.

"This includes termination of senior management, unfair dismissal, redundancy and employee restructuring exercises. We have not seen such numbers in the past five years," he said.

Apart from advising retrenched or terminated employees who want to know their legal rights, Mr Tang said his law firm also advises employers who want to reduce their headcount to remain sustainable during this period.

"We always ask them to think about the longer term, because if the market recovers, it can be difficult to rehire talent, and employers could consider alternative solutions like staggered hours or reduced salaries instead," he said.

Another frequent query to lawyers is on how businesses or freelancers can be freed from contractual obligations, particularly if they are a non-essential service that has had to halt its business.

Ms Nadia Moynihan, a director at August Law Corporation, said she had received multiple queries from small businesses on rent matters prior to the announcement of the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act.

The Act gives firms and individuals a six-month legal reprieve on specific contractual obligations, and they can negotiate and work out their differences with clients and partners during this time. Among other things, the Act covers rental contracts in the industrial and commercial sectors, and contracts for events, construction and supply.

Those who cannot reach a compromise can make their applications to a Panel of Assessors for Covid-19 Temporary Relief (Pact), appointed by the Ministry of Law, who will adjudicate and find a fair solution for all the parties.

"I anticipate more queries in the next couple of weeks, as people want to clarify what kind of evidence can be submitted to the panel, and what kind of outcomes are to be expected," said Ms Moynihan, who has written an article about the measures on legal help site SingaporeLegalAdvice.

 
 
 
 

Mr Jonathan Wong, managing director of Tembusu Law and founder of legal information platform LawGuide Singapore, said his firm has also come across clients who question if they must continue to make their maintenance payments to their wife and children, after losing their jobs or having their salaries reduced.

His firm has advised divorced couples not to take advantage of the situation and prevent access to their children for their former spouses.

To address some common legal issues arising from the current situation, the Law Society Pro Bono Services is launching a series of free Web seminars, on top of running its usual legal clinics for the community.

An upcoming Web seminar on May 15, called Freelancing In A Crisis, will address some common queries on cancelled contracts and non-payment of fees, and at least 200 people have already signed up for it, said the charity's chairman, Mr Gregory Vijayendran, who is also president of the Law Society.

Other topics in the works include domestic violence, handling personal and small business debt, and landlord and tenancy issues, he said.

Now is the time for lawyers to step up and do their part for society, said Mr Vijayendran.

"We need to be there and do our part to ensure we don't have secondary victims from the pandemic," he added.