The article is written by Akarsh Tripathi, a student of Symbiosis Law School Noida. The article talks about the kind of advice clients will seek from lawyers, during and after the COVID-19 crisis.
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The global pandemic COVID-19 has led to many catastrophes and disruptions across the world. It has caused a disarrangement amongst various sectors of the world, for instance, the supply chain network, the industrial sector or the startup industrial sector, etc.
Clients are facing queries regarding their rights and interests which must be protected. Apart from the spread of the virus, there is a widespread of something which is more dangerous, i.e. the spread of panic, rumours, etc. Such information creates fright amongst people and forces them to become troubled and disturbed.
For this, they are approaching their lawyers to seek remedy and consultation regarding what they shall do so that they don’t face major problems amid the coronavirus spread. There may be some employees worrying about what will happen to their jobs? Can tenants be forced by landlords to vacate the rental property? How will this crisis and lockdown affect contractual agreements entered by the clients?
In this article, we will analyze many more similar issues and will learn about the advice lawyers can give to their regular clients and ensure that this feeling of apprehension is nullified amongst them.
Advice Expected by the Regular Clients during and after COVID crisis
There are different types of clients, seeking advice and consultation from their lawyers with respect to their profession. In this article, we will learn about these different kinds of queries and how lawyers should prepare themselves to help their clients.
How will this Crisis Impact their Contracts?
The epidemic has resulted in disruptions in almost every sector. The production and supply chain is also highly affected due to this. Clients are approaching their lawyers to ensure that their contractual agreements don’t fall apart. There are also some clients who are seeking advice and consultancy of their lawyers as to how they can avoid their contractual obligations and back out from the agreements without committing any breach.
For this, the evaluation of the terms of agreements and their enforceability is highly advisable. The “force majeure” clause embedded in these supply chain agreements or any other contracts are of high relevance. Lawyers need to be heedful with respect to this clause and its legal framework must be thoroughly analyzed.
The question which is of utmost importance is that “Will COVID-19 trigger a force majeure clause?” Apart from this, there is much other advice which the regular clients will seek from their lawyers and attorneys. It is thus highly advisable for lawyers to be aware of the contractual agreements in which their clients are involved.
How will this Crisis affect their Ongoing Case?
The Supreme Court and the High Courts have released a notification that only ‘urgent matters’ will be taken amid the COVID-19 lockdown. Such matters will be taken via video conferencing, i.e. through the virtual courts which are being instituted.
However, it is still not clear what kind of cases will be considered as “urgent”. For instance, the Patna and Guwahati High Court released notifications regarding how they’ll be listing cases during this lockdown. In these notifications, there is no mention of the listing of bail matters or habeas corpus related petitions.
These urgent matters invoke the fundamental right of liberty of the citizens. Many of these notifications don’t mention citizenship-related matters making it difficult for the public, and especially the clients and lawyers to know how this crisis may affect their ongoing case.
The legal practitioners are well aware of the unsaid rule which decides whether a particular case is under the purview of “urgent matters” or not. This practice is based on the representation of the clients in cases.
For instance, the cases where the client is represented by a high profile lawyer or the case is in itself a high-profile case, it will be considered as “urgent”. The problem with such practice is that cases where the representation is by a common lawyer but might be important and urgent to be addressed, are suffering.
Due to the global pandemic, many employers have lost their job, or have not received their salary for the month of March and April. It is understandable that they are suffering through an economic slump, and won’t be having enough money to pay rents.
Also, it is not just the residential tenant and their landlords who will be facing issues of paying the rent and getting their payment of rent, respectively. Commercial tenants are also in a fear of being forced to evacuate the land for not being able to pay the rent.
Tenants, PG’s and student housing firms are trying to negotiate with their landlords so that they can extend the term of their agreements and can make the payment of their monthly rents once this pandemic ends. Good news is that these people are not by themselves.
Fortunately, Some of the state authorities like Noida and Delhi have passed orders to ask landlords not to take rents for the next 2-3 months. The central government decided that the employees who were supposed to vacate their premises can retain their accommodation till the 31st of May.
However, the impact of these orders is on a case-to-case basis. Some of the landlords are ready to extend the term of the lease agreement. Some of the landlords agreed not to ask for rent for the next few months but will charge extra post-July, once the crisis is over.
Clients will ask lawyers for their consultancy and advice regarding what can be the legal recourse of extending such rental agreements. Also, even the landlords will reach their legal advisors to ask them about their rights to get the payment of rent on time.
During the lockdown crisis, extending the rental agreements or postponing the payments is one of the top priorities of tenants whether residential or commercial. It is the responsibility of the lawyers to get the two parties into a mutual agreement on such an extension of the legal agreements or drawing up fresh rental agreements.
Considering that in-person meetings are not possible during the lockdown situations, Lawyers shall make such new agreements and get these agreements signed electronically. There is also a significant role of the ‘Force Majeure clause’ which is there in the agreements from both the sides, the tenants and landlords. Thus, Clients may consult their lawyers on how such a clause can benefit them and so that they can extend their rental agreements.
What if a Client tested Positive of COVID-19 attended a Gathering?
We all know that the novel coronavirus is highly contagious. This is the reason why government authorities, the World Health Organization and many other authorities are constantly releasing notifications to spread awareness amongst people about the importance of social distancing.
Unfortunately, we have some irresponsible people who don’t understand the importance of the quarantine rule and are even unaware of the laws which they may be violating. There have been instances of people attending social gatherings, skipping the screening tests and hiding their travel history too.
What if it is one of your regular clients who has been tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, and has recently attended a social gathering or in any way come into contact with a group of people? For this, the clients and their lawyers need to be aware of the existing laws, regarding the violation of rules related to quarantine or social-distancing, etc.
As per the Indian Penal Code, 1860, there are three sections which explicitly talk about these laws. The first is of Section 271 which talks about the disobedience of the quarantine rule. According to Section 271, whoever knowingly disobeys the quarantine rule can be punished with imprisonment (maximum of 6 months), or a fine, or both. Also, the offence in this section is non-cognizable, bailable, non-compoundable and triable by any Magistrate.
Section 269 and Section 270 of the Indian Penal Code is applicable in case your client has failed to take necessary precautions and did an act which he knew or had reason to believe that it may spread the virus.
In case, the act was negligent, then the client will be punished under Section 269, with imprisonment of a maximum of 6 months, or with a fine, or both. In case, the act was ‘malignant’ i.e. of evil nature (eg: spitting in a public place, coughing/sneezing without covering the mouth), then the client shall be punished under Section 270 of the Indian Penal Code, with imprisonment of maximum 2 years, or with a fine, or both. Also, both Section 269 and Section 270 are cognizable, bailable, non-compoundable and triable by any Magistrate.
Lawyers and clients must also take into consideration The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 where Section 3 mentions the penalty involved. According to Section 3, any person who disobeys the orders of the government passed under this Act will be punishable as per Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.
Rights an Employee would be Entitled to, Due to the Crisis
There are some regular clients of lawyers who are employees of some organisation or company. It is unquestionable that the COVID-19 crisis has affected the employment sector too. Since companies are shutting down their offices and moving towards a remote working system, there are many employees who are and who will lose their jobs.
So it is advisable for legal professionals to acquaint themselves with the rights an employee is entitled to, which protects its interest. There are various laws one may refer to, such as The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, Indian Penal Code, 1860, Equal Remuneration Act, 1976, Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972 and Employees’ State Insurance Act, 1948, etc.
One of the important statutes is of The Payment of Wages Act, 1936 which makes it necessary for the employers to provide remunerations to the employees, without any discrimination. The main question that comes in the mind of every employee is whether they will be paid their salary during the lockdown period or not?
Fortunately, the answer is Yes. The Central Government of India has issued a circular which states that if the workers are on leave and are not coming to the factory, due to the nationwide lockdown, then also they shall be deemed to be “on duty” and no consequential deduction in wages should be made for the period.
Also, it is important to note that in case an employee is asked to come to the factory or office, and gets infected due to coronavirus, then a tortious claim may be filed by the employee against the employer.
Thus, for every kind of query, lawyers need to consult with other experts from different sectors and provide their clients with adequate advice. It must be kept in mind that as lawyers and legal professionals it is our duty to make sure that our clients don’t face any kind of difficulties and don’t have to worry about their interests being protected.
Once, the pandemic ends, the legal sector will surely have an increase in work. The reason behind this is the turmoil which has been created and is still continuing to develop in almost every sector.
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