The onset of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus serves as a reminder to all law firms that we will be living with the implications of the pandemic for some time to come.
It is imperative that firms take all reasonable steps to keep staff, clients and the community safe.
Although it is impossible to adopt hard and fast rules in relation to what will be an ever-changing environment, Queensland Law Society offers some options for practices to consider implementing.
Ask staff if they are vaccinated
Various Australian courts are dealing with challenges to COVID measures, including the mandating of vaccines for all employees.
While a recent case1 struck down such a mandate, the decision was based on a failure to adequately consult, and it is worth noting that vaccination mandates have been upheld in other cases.
However, it is entirely appropriate for employers to enquire as to the vaccination status of their staff (NB: The Privacy Act 1988 does not apply to businesses turning over less than $3 million a year; for firms with a greater turnover, there are requirements for collecting and making records of sensitive health information, and firms in that position should seek advice as to compliance with that legislation).
If staff are unvaccinated or do not wish to disclose their status, firms should consider measures such as allowing that staff member to work from home, or requiring them to wear a mask and request they maintain social distancing while at work if that is practical and consistent with their duties.
Ask clients if they are vaccinated
Again, this is an appropriate enquiry to make, given the need for firms to keep their staff safe. As with staff, if clients are unvaccinated or do not wish to disclose their status, virtual meetings or masks and social distancing should be considered when engaging with these clients.
Maintain social distancing and hand sanitisation practices
One of the main factors in our state’s successful response to the pandemic was sticking to the protocols of keeping 1.5 metres apart and frequently washing/sanitising our hands.
Having hand sanitiser available in reception, staff/lunch rooms and any room in which meetings with clients are held is advisable. Similarly, maximising ventilation can reduce the likelihood of aerosol transmission.
Consider the needs of highly vulnerable clients and staff
Some staff and clients may be more at risk of severe illness from COVID than others, such as people over 70 years of age and those who have certain health conditions. A comprehensive list of at-risk conditions can be found here.
It is recommended that firms make enquiries of staff and clients as to whether or not they may have conditions which render them more at risk. If vulnerable members of staff/clients are identified, firms should take steps to reduce the risk; clearly, if at all possible work from home and virtual meeting practices should be implemented in these cases.
Ensure that staff are aware of measures in place at off-site venues they are required to attend for work
Specific measures are in place for various courts, and places which are vulnerable to the spread of infection, or have at-risk residents, such as hospitals, residential aged care, disability accommodation services, and prisons. It is incumbent on solicitors and law firms to be aware of these measures and abide by them.
Dedicate resources to keeping abreast of the latest changes in health restrictions
It is likely that we will experience further outbreaks of COVID, of varying severity and similarly varying restrictions. It is important for firms to keep up with these changes and to remain compliant with the restrictions; it is recommended that a staff member be tasked with monitoring the heath restrictions and keeping the firm informed of any changes.
Incorporating updates into team meeting agendas and regularly reminding staff of your COVID measures will help in keeping staff safe.
Check in with staff as to how they are coping
For almost two years now the world has been dealing with the pandemic, and staff will have been subjected to long periods of stress and uncertainty. Ensuring that you stay in tune with how staff are feeling, and making sure they know that help is at hand if they need it, will go some way to reducing this.
It is recommended that all firms remind their staff of QLS’ LawCare service, which makes professional counsellors available free to members, their staff and family.
You can also access further information that may be of assistance.
Shane Budden is a Special Counsel, Ethics, with the Queensland Law Society Ethics and Practice Centre.
1 Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, Mr Matthew Howard v Mt Arthur Coal Pty Ltd t/a Mt Arthur Coal  FWCFB 6059.