COVID-19 SPECIAL

Lawyers see surge in queries amid coronavirus pandemic

Issues include unfair job dismissal and divorced parents' visitation rights

The circuit breaker period to curb the spread of the coronavirus has seen more people asking lawyers about matters related to wrongful job termination, contractual obligations and family maintenance payments.
The circuit breaker period to curb the spread of the coronavirus has seen more people asking lawyers about matters related to wrongful job termination, contractual obligations and family maintenance payments.ST FILE PHOTO

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.

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

"These include 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 employees or those whose services are terminated, 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 how businesses or freelancers can be freed from contractual obligations, particularly if they are a non-essential service which 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 businesses 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 the Panel of Assessors for Covid-19 Temporary Relief, which will 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.

Mr Jonathan Wong, managing director of Tembusu Law and founder of legal information platform LawGuide Singapore, said his firm had also come across clients who question if they must continue to make their maintenance payments to their former 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 their former spouses from having access to their children.

MORE INQUIRIES EXPECTED

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.

MS NADIA MOYNIHAN, a director at August Law Corporation, on small businesses seeking reprieve over contractual obligations under the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act.

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

A Web seminar on May 15, "Freelancing in a crisis", will address 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 of Singapore.

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

  • Coronavirus conundrums

  • ON WRONGFUL DISMISSAL

    Q What should I do if I am dismissed or have my employment terminated by my employer?

    A It is best to keep a record of your correspondence and communication with your employer so that you can consult a lawyer to advise you on your rights.

    If the termination is done over the phone, you should write to the employer to get a confirmation of what has been said in writing or e-mail so that the court can determine whether the termination or dismissal was unfair, said lawyer Nicolas Tang.

    A termination should always be in accordance with the employment contract, he added.

    ON CONTRACTUAL OBLIGATIONS

    Q My company is a service provider with an existing contract. Do I need to continue providing the contracted service if my staff are prevented from carrying out their jobs because of the virus situation? Will I get sued for breaching my contract?

    A Under the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act, individuals and businesses can obtain temporary relief from legal action for not fulfilling specific contractual obligations.

    However, if you are not covered under the Act, other legal remedies that can be considered include commencing legal proceedings on the basis that the contract should be automatically discharged due to frustration of the contract or via operation of a force majeure clause in the contract, if any, said Mr Jonathan Wong, founder of LawGuide Singapore.

    ON VISITATION RIGHTS

    Q With the circuit breaker measures in force, how are my existing rights and arrangements for access to my children affected?

    A Under Health Ministry guidelines, children of divorced parents are allowed to alternate between living with either parent, but any movement and travel should be kept to a minimum.

    This means access arrangements may continue.

    Lawyer Nadia Moynihan has urged her clients to remain in their homes with their children and not venture out as they used to prior to the circuit breaker period.

    Cara Wong

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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2020, with the headline 'Lawyers see surge in queries amid pandemic'. Subscribe