Our Updated Procedures Amid Covid-19 – Part I

It has now been approximately seven weeks since our Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General declared a state of emergency in British Columbia. Since then, the legal profession has been deemed an essential service and like many other essential services, we have had to adapt to our new reality of maintaining physical distancing and avoiding any non-essential travel.

What is the new reality within our office?

Well, for starters, we have been forced to make better use of technology – which is a good thing! What is normally a bustling office filled with 30 staff is now a quiet office with less than 10 staff working in the office any given day, as most of our staff now work remotely. Clients who must sign documents in the presence of a lawyer (i.e. real estate matters and estate planning matters) are screened prior to attending our office, asked to wash their hands before their meeting and meet in our boardroom with their lawyer, which is sanitized before and after meetings. Initial client consultations which would normally occur in person are now scheduled via telephone or video-conferencing to limit in-person meetings to the extent possible.

A common question we receive from clients is, “can I sign legal documents remotely?”

The answer is: it depends. A lawyer has a professional obligation to verify a clients’ identity. This is normally done in-person. In the context of Covid-19, a lawyer does have other options to verify a client’s identity. For example, when a client is located in Canada, a lawyer may be able to verify a client’s identity via video-conferencing. It is up to the lawyer to satisfy him or herself that their client is who they say they are. If a lawyer is able to verify his or her clients’ identity then certain documents, such as real estate documents may be signed remotely. However, when it comes to estate planning documents and specifically a Will, it is not yet clear whether a Will signed virtually would be valid. In order for a Will to be valid in British Columbia it must meet certain formality requirements. One of these requirements is that a Will must be signed in the “presence” of two witnesses (the witnesses cannot be beneficiaries named in the Will or a spouse of a beneficiary named in the Will). For this reason, most clients prefer to attend our office to sign Wills. Where it is impossible for a client to attend our office (i.e. those required to self-isolate), one option is to have the client sign the Will virtually with the lawyer and a staff member watching the client sign via video-conferencing. Though this option does not meet the formality requirements under the Wills, Estates and Succession Act (“WESA”), a court can order that a document which represents the testamentary intentions of a deceased be recognized as an effective Will even if it is not formally valid.

Though technology has allowed us to continue to operate through these unprecedented times, it will be interesting to see the long-term effects of the pandemic on the legal profession generally. At Sitka Law Group, we are still open for business and are happy to offer most of our legal services remotely (via telephone or video-conferencing). Please contact us for a complimentary consultation.