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Society

Coronavirus and the law

Chief Justice David Maraga
Chief Justice David Maraga flanked by members of The National Council for the Administration of Justice address journalists at the Supreme Court, Nairobi, on March 15, 2020 to give a statement on Corona Virus. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT 

The coronavirus epidemic has disrupted operations in the legal sector if only temporarily. The Government slow down on non-essential services has seen a substantial slowdown of services in the legal services sector. Court activities are on a go slow such that hearing of non-urgent matters has been suspended. The courts will only hear urgent matters. The effect of this has been felt on businesses and individuals whose cases may face further delays. The effect of the court go slow has been felt in law firms that provide litigation services. Some law firms have also opted to go slow and many have sent their staff home especially the staff who handled litigation. Some law firms have opted to have their staff work remotely.

The importance of digitisation of legal services is enhanced now more than ever. Highly digitized law firms are able to continue offering services with minimum disruptions. For example, instead of having face to face meetings, digitised law firms are able to hold video conference meetings with clients and therefore are able to provide their services regardless of the go slow. This season may form a learning experience for law firms and even the courts on the need to be digitized. We hope a time will come when court sessions for example delivering of judgements and rulings, can be done remotely through video conferencing.

The need for digitisation isn’t only for the legal services sector but for every other sector. Digitized businesses which support staff to work remotely face less disruptions. Some businesses have been quick to adapt to change. For example some supermarkets have began offering digitized delivery services to customers. The customer is required to send their shopping list and make the payment online. Once payment is received then the supermarket delivers the necessary goods to the customers. These are some of the ways businesses can quickly adapt to external changes.

As operations in law firms face unchartered waters, there is increasing coronavirus-related litigation which give the country a rich jurisprudence in consumer rights and public health. The Government announced a tough approach by promising to apprehend persons who attempt to take advantage of the situation for gain.

Following the announcement of the first coronavirus case in Kenya, there was a lot of panic buying among the public and this lead to a shortage of items such as hand sanitizers. One trader took advantage of this shortage and increased the price of sanitizer by 20%. The Competition Authority found that this trader had flouted the Competition Act and ordered it to refund its 960 customers the overcharge.

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A medical clinic, Avane Clinic was shut and its proprietor charged for purportedly claiming he could test for coronavirus at a fee. The Government is keeping its promise to apprehend traders and individuals who in its view are taking advantage.

A few emerging legal issues following coronavirus include labour issues. Many staff have been asked to work from home and others have been asked to take pay cuts all of which have legal implications.

Workplace safety will also be an issue. If an employee such as a doctor contracts the virus while working in an unsafe environment for example where hand sanitizers were not provided, then a successful suit can be filed.

There will be intellectual property issues in the event of patentable breakthrough discoveries. The intellectual property issues that are likely to arise are issues of compulsory licensing of the medicine for public good. A balance may need to be struck between commercial gains of the pharmaceutical company and the right to health of the masses.

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