Our legal doctor Robert Botkai takes a look back over this year - including scotch eggs, diversity, home deliveries and hybrid working.
As we approach Christmas it seems like an opportune time to reflect on 2021. And what a year!
We started the year advising, daily it seemed, on new laws telling us how to go about our lives. When we could go out, with whom and to where. As I write this article, Austria is going into lockdown and other countries in Europe are creating rules of law that none of us would have even contemplated two years ago.
As readers will know, I had a particular interest in the distinction between law and guidance. Ministers would say one thing, government guidance another and neither necessarily tied in with the legislation before us. There was much head scratching.
Then the interpretation and enforcement as officers too were understandably confused. I was as frustrated as clients when officers marched into petrol stations ordering the closure of hand car washes. This reflected a worrying tendency to interpret and enforce rules literally rather than apply common sense.
Who would have thought that Scotch eggs would feature in my review of the year? For a time, pubs could only open if their customers could order a substantial meal. As a licensing law specialist, I knew that a 1965 case had decided that a beetroot sandwich could be such a meal. Ministers and their advisors didn’t have this level of specialist knowledge and got into an awful pickle (sorry) when questioned by the media.
As some sort of normality resumed, we advised on the new planning use classes and have since seen a move from retail space to restaurant use in sensitive residential areas.
It has been a hugely challenging time for landlords and tenants. We have advised on government measures to protect tenants from eviction. It has been good to see many parties being able to reach reasonable arrangements.
Delivery of shop goods and, in particular, alcohol has exploded during the year. Petrol retailers have required advice when partnering with third-party delivery companies. We have also been acting for an operator opening so-called dark stores around the UK and grappling with licensing laws that although enacted in 2003, failed to predict the move to online and delivery. We have had to be creative!
Petrol stations have been bought and sold. We see more of the family operators sell up. We will miss some of the characters that make the petrol world so special.
We have witnessed the momentous efforts of the petrol retail sector dealing with the fuel crisis. I am sure there will be case studies examining the public reaction to supply issues and I suspect fuel will not be the only example of this.
More generally we have seen huge interest in ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) and EDI (Equality Diversity and Inclusion). I lead Winckworth Sherwood’s EDI group and have an interest in the debate over how the legal profession can become more diverse.
Another key feature of the working year has been flexibility. Law firms, as with other professional services, have geared up for home working. We expected this to be for three-to-four weeks but 18 months later many are still home or fitting in with new flexible working policies. Our own team is working two-to-three days a week in the office, but some of our lawyers prefer to be in every day. Many of us have enjoyed the benefits of flexible working and I have little doubt it is here to stay.
Video calls did not feature in my working life two years ago. Not since the introduction of email has there been such a change in the way we work. I have missed getting out to see clients and meeting new people at events, and I am pleased to see events are starting up again. I do hope that remote licence hearings will soon be consigned to the past.
There has been a further positive to video calls. We have met with clients far more regularly over the past 12 months than would have ever been the case pre-Covid. I recognise that this change is for the better and will remain. We will all think more carefully as to whether the travel time is necessary for business meetings which can be held on a digital platform.
Throughout the year we have tried to support our clients as well as ensuring that our own people were safe and well. My own team has maintained a daily video team meeting so that we replicate or even improve on the internal communication we would have had in the office.
I hope that you have enjoyed my column. I am always looking for topics to write about. While I specialise in real estate and licensing, Winckworth Sherwood has teams dealing with corporate law, commercial contracts, tax, planning, employment, education and parliamentary agents. What is a parliamentary agent, I hear you ask? Well perhaps that’s for an article in 2022.
I wish all readers the best Christmas possible, good health and a very Happy New Year.
I would very much welcome feedback and suggestions on these issues or any areas you would like me to cover in future articles.