Lessons learned in lockdown
Having recently re-decanted from my office to home for the second time in seven months, it struck me how working from home appears more “normal” than it did on 21st March 2020. It also prompted me to reflect on how differently I conduct adjudications now. For present purposes, I want to focus on three changes.
The first change was how I chose to receive and direct how documents were provided. Although I’ve required procedural communications to be provided by electronic means for some time, I had always asked for hard and electronic copies of submissions. I quickly changed to not requiring hard copies. The catalyst for the change for submissions was two-fold. Firstly, there was no one to take the deliveries in the office. Secondly, I perceived that parties may have difficulty providing hard copies in terms of printing and transport. Having embraced the change, I do not anticipate changing back. Whilst I still print hard copies of submissions, witness statements, expert reports and key documents, with the aid of multiple screens I have become quite adept at navigating electronic documents.
The second change is the use of technology for the conduct of procedural discussions, meetings and inspections. I’m now familiar with and have used Zoom, Teams, Adobe Connect, Blue Jeans, WebEx and Skype etc. for meetings to good effect. Although the dynamic is different, and I do miss the “in person” interaction, I can certainly see the cost benefit of convening virtual meetings, especially if the parties and members of their teams are spread far and wide. In fact, even if the parties are in the same city, the savings in terms of travel time may still make a virtual meeting more cost effective. I have also used technology assist with inspections, either by use of a simple video or live steam or a drone. Again, I consider that I will continue to use these mediums going forward.
The third change is an increased awareness of how an individual’s personal circumstances can affect their ability to cope with the impact of the ongoing restrictions on movement. For example, just because a party representative works for a big city law firm with state of the art IT systems at the workspace doesn’t necessarily mean they will have the same capabilities working from home. Also, an individual with the added burden of home schooling or parenting a young child may have increased demands on their time which means that the ability to respond to and/or meet tight deadlines is more difficult. As a consequence, I have been involving the parties with timetabling to a greater degree than I did before. Although I accept that the adjudicator should take control of the process, I see a number of benefits in involving the parties with setting things up at the outset. After all, one of the key benefits of adjudication is the flexibility it affords in terms of its ability to deal with both the simple single issue disputes on the one hand and the complex “kitchen-sinkers” on the other.
Looking back over the last 7 months, the overriding impression I have is how well suited the adjudication process is in dealing with disputes in the current climate. There are two aspects to this. The first is the ability to achieve a quick decision that can unlock issues and get cash flowing. The second, is the fact that the whole process can be conducted remotely. That said, I still miss the “in person” interaction with colleagues, meeting the protagonists in real life and having a ringside seat when the advocates are doing battle. However, when we do return to “normal”, I suspect that it will be a different “normal” to the one we used to know.