By Richard Wee, Wendy Ho and Divagar

Malaysia declared a lockdown on 16th March 2020 (which took effect on 18th March 2020) through the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases (Declaration of Infected Local Areas) Order 2020. It has been more commonly known as the 2020 Movement Control Order (“MCO”).

While it is not an absolute lockdown, the consequence of ordering all Malaysians to stay at home except to purchase essential items (such as food and daily necessities) effectively changed not only the way we live but also the way we work. In fact, the theme of the MCO included a directive to “Work From Home” (WFH), during working days. The flow-through from the MCO saw law firms, companies, organisations and agencies frantically putting in place a “Business Continuity Plan” (BCP) to ensure the commerce of their respective businesses are able to carry on.

It has been traditionally recognised that at the heart of legal services lies human touch and interaction. Lawyers to a large extent offer people-centric services. In view of the current MCO, lawyers are forced to work from home and the Courts have been closed (as it was not listed as an essential service), resulting in hearings and trials being postponed. How then, do we ensure continuity in the provision of legal services despite working from home in the midst of this global pandemic?

Lawyers have been utilising the Internet in providing legal services, even way before the Malaysian government declared the nationwide MCO. Emails and text messages have always been that ubiquitous platform for lawyers to communicate with their clients.

Emails and text messages will remain the main conduit for communication between lawyers and their clients, while lawyers continue to work from home. As face-to-face meetings are not possible at the moment, lawyers can equip themselves and conduct online conference calls with clients and colleagues through applications such as Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts.

Despite working from home, lawyers are still able to e-file their respective cause papers to Court via the e-filing system that has since replaced the traditional, old-school manual filing system.

The e-Review platform enables lawyers to attend Case Managements from the comfort of their respective homes in the midst of the MCO. Lawyers may conduct case management online with judicial officers via exchange of written messages without having to attend court.

In order to ensure continued access to justice, the Chief Registrar of the Federal Court, Tuan Ahmad Terrirudin bin Mohd Salleh had notified lawyers on the various modes of conducting hearings of civil cases online during the MCO via a media statement dated 26 March 2020.

Parties may apply to the Court to have their cases heard online by using the e-Review system, exchange of emails, or video conferences provided that this has been agreed to by both parties and leave for such application shall be at the discretion of the Court. The proceedings which can be heard online are those at the High Court and the subordinate courts in Peninsular Malaysia, where the ex-parte or inter-partes application(s) must have been filed together with a Certificate of Urgency.

The Companies Commission of Malaysia (Suruhanjaya Syarikat Malaysia (SSM)) allows lawyers to conduct online searches on a company’s profile, a business’ profile, or to obtain many other relevant documents of a company or business via SSM’s e-Info website.

Lawyers may also utilise the e-Insolvensi website to ascertain the solvency status of a company or an individual.

The Credit Tip-Off Services (CTOS) website provides lawyers with information as to the creditworthiness as well as whether any legal proceedings have been initiated against a particular individual or company.

Lawyers may make payments for non-judicial stamp duties via STAMPS – an Electronic Stamp Duty Assessment and Payment System introduced by the Inland Revenue Board of Malaysia (IBRM) in 2018. This electronic payment system now comes in extra handy in view of the MCO.

Legal Services an Online Services?

All of the online services listed above have long been part of law firms’ operational system, but the big difference is that these systems were mostly used as a fall back to the usual face-to-face method of work. Lawyers are a traditional lot. Many are slow to embrace technology where many believe the mere use of a smart phone would equate to being ‘technologically’ savvy.

Unfortunately or fortunately some may say, the MCO has necessitated the need for lawyers to find ways to be effective and relevant; and technology and the internet has come into play for this purpose. Perhaps the time has come for law firms to invest and utilise digital platforms to work and hone their craft.

We humbly proffer that this article is not advocating replacing our traditional methods of offering legal services but merely to embrace the benefits of online legal services that are available to the profession today.

Conclusion

In the words of the Former Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Malaysia, Tan Sri Datuk Seri Panglima Richard Malanjum: “The tagline for the legal fraternity will be “Now Anywhere Can Work””. Lawyers are not immune to the way they work and in view that online is now the new “normal”, lawyers are now able to operate anywhere and anytime despite the declaration of the MCO.

Online legal services? Just the right way forward.

Published on April 13th, 2020

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