Pandemic forces a balancing act

Rizal Faisal

Many businesses are taking a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic around the globe, which are echoed in Brunei Darussalam; and the legal sector is no exception.

Speaking with the Bulletin regarding the effects of the outbreak on the sector was Yusof Halim, one of the partners of local law firm Yusof Halim & Partners (YHP).

The firm has 60 personnel including 12 lawyers, half of whom are locals or permanent residents.

According to Yusof, YHP “is family. There are no barriers between partners, lawyers and staff. We greet each other by first-name basis and regularly hold family functions and trips”.

He noted that the tight-knit nature of their operations was disrupted when the coronavirus came to Brunei shores.

“Initially, there wasn’t much concern when the outbreak was limited to China’s Wuhan,” he said. “We thought it would be similar to SARS, MERS or ZICA, which had brought chaos to many countries but had little or no effect on Brunei.”

When countries started to impose travel restrictions, the local public began to show concerns. By mid-March, it was clear that the world was facing a pandemic.

Yusof said the law firm, as with all business concerns, drafted a plan to support the government’s efforts in combatting the virus.

Meanwhile, staff members were troubled by the fact that the company they worked for would be impacted by the outbreak, and with a depressed business outlook, there may be a need to trim the fat.

In response, the firm called for a meeting, during which the staff were assured that they would not be dismissed, face a pay cut or forced to take unpaid leave for as long as it was sustainable.

Instead, Yusof said, “the partners agreed to take a cut in their own salaries”.

The firm also arranged for the staff to receive advance half-month salaries to ensure they had enough money to buy rations should a nationwide lockdown be enforced.

Around the time when YHP set up a temperature check at its premises and mandated the use of face masks, two lawyers from other firms tested positive for COVID-19.

By then, YHP had already implemented preventive measures such as the use of phone or video call for meetings whenever possible. But the news pushed the firm to shift to a higher gear.

To avoid facing a shutdown, YHP proactively divided its employees into two teams, with each team working on alternate days.

Yusof said, “We believe this arrangement allows for better social distancing practice, and to prevent cross-contamination between teams in the event that any of us tested positive for COVID-19.”

“Fortunately,” he added, “no one at YHP has been infected thus far.”

Additionally, the law firm has set up a Frontliners Relief Fund as “we were so moved by the dedication of the frontliners” in the fight against the coronavirus.

He said, “We couldn’t just sit back and do nothing. So the firm has pledged to make contributions to these heroes until the pandemic is over.”

In addition, the 50 Muslims at YHP performed a recital of the Quran over a group chat and made supplications for the protection of everyone in Brunei.

“We are all doing our best to support the government’s efforts in combatting the virus,” he said. “To give anything but our best is a disservice to the country.”

Meanwhile, Leney Andrew Albert of law firm Messrs Ahmad Isa and Partners said, “The coronavirus has affected almost every nation in the world, and Brunei has not been spared. But we are lucky that Brunei has been able to contain and mitigate its spread very well.”

The lawyer continued, “Many countries have imposed a lockdown, which prevents people from going to work. Thankfully, Brunei Darussalam has not resorted to such a drastic measure.”

He commended some of the preventive measures adopted by Brunei including the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival in the country, a ban in mass gatherings, a shift to online learning for all students and a ban in dine-in at restaurants.

“As such,” Albert said, “Brunei businesses have been greatly impacted by the outbreak.”

He added, “The legal sector has been affected to a certain degree by the coronavirus. For example, we’re seeing a growing number of clients who have difficulty paying their legal fees.”

“While legal firms may empathise with the problems faced by their clients and grant them necessary indulgence in terms of payment, the reality is that legal firms themselves need to pay staff salaries,” he said.

He saw a need to strike a delicate balance “between collecting legal fees and understanding the plight of their clients”. After all, he added, “The COVID-19 pandemic should not be used as a blanket excuse by the people to not pay what they owe.”