Change for Better or for Worse? The Top Legal Movements Which Impacted 2019

Below, I have listed out some of the standout legal changes which have occurred in 2019 and how they have impacted us, our businesses or our lives. Were they the right step ahead? Let’s find out.

It is a little bit tough to know where to begin with this. A lot has happened this year in the capricious legal realm. From alterations in abortion laws to new tax reforms, all the way through to drone laws and, dare I say it, Brexit, a lot has changed this year (aside from the latter point; not much has changed there at all…yet).

And, for the legislative reforms that have been made, have they changed things for the better, or are we in a worse position than before? After all, the erratic and unpredictable nature of our endlessly advancing society is what leads us to address and revise the laws that work and change or scrap those that don’t.

.There’s finally some legislation for drone flying (possibly as a result of airport closures due to drones) from November 2019 it is illegal to fly a drone weighing more than 250g without registering it with the Civil Aviation Authority and passing a safety test.

Employment Law

From the Gig Economy taking the headlines again and again, all the way through to minimum wages and pay gap reporting, employment law is an area which had a few wake up calls throughout the year, in the UK and US.

In September, Lawmakers in California passed Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) – a move designed to pave the way for “gig workers” to become employees and gain additional rights. Some argued it will make things worse for those who want to work flexibly, whereas others argued the gig economy enables “Workers [to] lose basic protections like the minimum wage, paid sick days and health insurance benefits.”

The new law demands that workers are considered employees unless companies can prove that the worker is “free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work”.

Earlier this year in April, the European Parliament approved new EU rules for the member states – giving them three years to enforce increased transparency for those in “on-demand” jobs at companies like Uber or Deliveroo -, proposing there should be more predictable hours, compensation for work that is cancelled and an end to casual contracts, which have the tendency to shift towards a more ‘abusive’ practice.

Whether or not such rules will positively impact the gig economy is yet to be determined. However, with California’s Bill already in full force, some have noted the negative impact it may have. A fine example from Times of San Diego: “AB 5 will rob workers of the freedom and flexibility they want and sometimes need from freelance work, and force more companies to leave the state than already are. California’s once-dynamic economy is on track to becoming permanently sclerotic.

AB 5 is a historic mistake.”

More police officers can now authorise stop and search probes, likely to be as a direct result of the worrying knife crime rates, an extra 3000 police officers are now able to authorise the use of stop and search powers.

Environmental Law

I think we know where I will be starting for this one: the Paris Agreement. Uproar and disappointment hit the headlines when Donald Trump announced his withdrawal from the Agreement earlier this year. The impact it has had so far? Well, not much as it the withdrawal will take final effect in November 2020.

In the UK, the government introduced a landmark Bill to Parliament in October, to tackle the biggest environmental priorities of our time, signalling a historic change in the way the environment is protected.

The transformative Environment Bill will help ensure that the UK maintains and improves its environmental protections as the UK leaves the EU. As stated on Gov.uk: “Environmental principles will be enshrined in law and measures will be introduced to improve air and water quality, tackle plastic pollution and restore habitats so plants and wildlife can thrive.

“Legislation will also create, legally-binding environmental improvement targets. A new independent Office for Environmental Protection will be established to scrutinise environmental policy and law, investigate complaints and take enforcement action against public authorities, if necessary, to uphold our environmental standards.

“The office’s powers will cover all climate change legislation and hold the government to account on its commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050. By also championing nature-based solutions, the Bill demonstrates our commitment to tackle climate change.”

Will it work? Only time will tell.

Despite concerns it would lead to the closure of bookies, the Government in October 2019 implemented a maximum stake of £2, reduced from £100. This controversial change has been praised by many including ex-gambling addicts, their families and local MPs

Global Trade

Perhaps the juiciest of them all, global trade, had its fair share of discussions this year. From Brexit to the trade war of the year (US vs. China), international businesses remained on their toes, anxious to know if there is anything imperatively impacting around the corner.

Speaking to Bernadette M. Bulacan, Lead Evangelist at Icertis, she notes that 2019 marked the year of global trade disruption and that the greatest legal challenge faced by lawyers, especially those who advise complex, multi-national organisations, was the rise of economic and national populism.

‘A “shrinking” globe and protectionist tendencies– like higher tariffs and quotas on imports– have posed a substantial threat to supply chains and business growth; legal teams have had to quickly pivot to provide guidance and advice in these uncertain times and in an ever-changing political landscape.’

Legal Tech

‘In addition to these global economic challenges’, shares Bernadette, ‘another internal threat facing the legal profession was their inability to flex, be agile and join the digital transformation that is disrupting the rest of their respective organisations.’

Expanding on this, we speak to Matthew Harrington, Senior Partner at insurance and commercial law firm BLM, and we discuss how the race to implement tech accelerated in 2019.

‘Every insurance law firm has had to adapt their practices and ways of working over the last 5-10 years and this year we have seen a real acceleration in law firms investing in innovation, technology and analytics’, says Matthew.

‘In our case, we’ve had a real push to encourage a ‘digital-first’ mindset; embracing what’s now possible through digital so that we can respond faster and deliver on the experiences that our clients expect.’

This year Matthew’s team introduced a suite of analytics tools in conjunction with the London School of Economics. One of those tools uses AI to consider the strength of evidence on either side of a case to predict the fault in a claim; it supports claims handlers in reaching earlier settlements, using explainable AI to simulate human decision making.

With legal tech continuing to develop and transform how the legal sphere coincides with laypersons and citizens, it is vital that those involved in the legal industry adopt such developments to transform how the judicial system works.

It is safe to say that the EU is not messing around. Such hefty fines given to influential, international companies further exhibits the importance of businesses taking their customers’ personal data -and their trust- very seriously.

‘I would say that in 2019, it’s become increasingly clear to our sector that it’s no longer just about great legal advice – that’s a given. It’s now important to be able to support clients in different ways and to continue making crucial investments. For us, this has meant investing in different IT functions and creating a specialist team to support our digital strategy.’

Notwithstanding talks of innovation and adoption of legal tech in small pockets, the profession as a whole remains largely resistant to the winds (and therefore the benefits) of change. As Bernadette expands, ‘My hope is that 2020 sees more of the profession leaning into change, taking a critical look at archaic processes (like manual, paper-based contracting) and adopting technology to facilitate collaboration and speed.

‘I think that this change of mindset will not only transform the legal practice, but also break common stereotypes of lawyers who are perceived as not being creative, data-driven or business-minded.​’

Insurance

Alistair Kinley, Director of Policy & Government Affairs at insurance and commercial law firm BLM, discusses how changes to the discount rate, announced in July, have impacted insurers and the law firms advising them. One of the most significant changes for insurers in the personal injury sphere was the new discount rate set under the Civil Liability Act 2018. The intention of the Act was to bring in more real-world and evidence-based approach to valuing significant future loss claims.

‘The Lord Chancellor announced a new discount rate of -0.25% in July’, explains Alistair. ‘This was something of a disappointment to us and our insurance clients, as in the earlier part of the year we’d been resolving claims at around +0.5% and above so there was a degree of expectation that the new statutory rate would be at that sort of level. The -0.25% rate meant that a number of insurers who had planned on zero % or a modestly positive rate had to strengthen reserves.’

All that said, the setting of the new rate did remove uncertainties in resolving cases and should help to bring claims to a close more quickly. The rate should remain stable until the next review in five years’ time.

GDPR

You thought we left any mention of GDPR back in 2017, didn’t you? But, even though your inbox may be feeling a little less attacked from all of the GDPR emails your favourite subscribed websites were throwing your way, 2019 was really truly the year of GDPR.

Google started the year off with a bang. In January, Alphabet’s leading subsidiary was fined a whopping £44 million by CNIL for a breach of the EU’s data protection rules.  It was reported that the regulator said Google had not obtained clear consent to process data because “essential information” was “disseminated across several documents”.

According to PreciseSecurity analysis[1], the top ten biggest GDPR fines combined amount to $443.7 million, and the biggest, was awarded earlier this year to British Airways. They were fined £183m over breaching customers’ personal data, including their financial details and sensitive personal information when hackers obtained the data over a two-week period.

After Google, British Airways and Marriott International – who comes second place in highest GDPR fine of the year – collectively bring the sum of GDPR’s 2019 fines to (approximately) £ 309 million (USD 400 Million).

It is safe to say that the EU is not messing around. Such hefty fines given to influential, international companies further exhibits the importance of businesses taking their customers’ personal data -and their trust- very seriously.

What’s to Come?  

But where there have been changes, there are still lots to be done that perhaps 2020 will see. We speak to Sarah Colley who is a senior supervising solicitor at Wilson Solicitors and Children’s Panel member, on what didn’t change and what 2020 should really address.

“There have been little changes to family and children law in 2019. Expected changes, such as the introduction of ‘no-fault’ divorce and amendments to the law surrounding domestic abuse, have not come to fruition due to the upcoming general election. Unfortunately, although these bills were going through parliament, they have now lapsed and require re-introduction in a Queen’s Speech with the process starting again from scratch.”

She explains how both bills are vital to the development of family law, the avoidance or reduction of conflict, and the protection of the most vulnerable people in our society. The Domestic Abuse Bill will bring about a prohibition of the cross-examination of domestic abuse victims by their abuser, and the proposed ‘no fault’ divorce bill will avoid the blame game currently in place in our divorce system and assist in focusing the parties on other more important issues such as the children.

“It is therefore disappointing to note that despite how important both bills are, although the three major parties (Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrats) have all stated in their manifestos that they will re-introduce the Domestic Abuse Bill, only two (Labour and Liberal Democrats) have committed to re-introducing the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill.”

[1] https://www.itproportal.com/news/top-gdpr-breaches-caused-millions-in-fines/

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