Can a law firm furlough trainee solicitors under the coronavirus (COVID-19) job retention scheme?

Can a law firm furlough trainee solicitors under the coronavirus (COVID-19) job retention scheme?

 

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) was announced by the government on 20 March 2020. It is a temporary scheme in place for three months starting from 1 March 2020, but it may be extended if necessary. Employers can use the scheme anytime during this period. The detail of the scheme is outside the scope of this Q&A, but broadly, it allows qualifying employers to designate certain employees as being ‘on furlough’, ie their employment will be suspended as a temporary measure, with a view to helping those employers whose operations have been affected by coronavirus to retain their employees and protect the UK economy. Under the scheme, HMRC will reimburse 80% of furloughed workers’ wage costs (calculated as set out in guidance on the scheme), up to a cap of £2,500 per month, per employee.

For more information on the CJRS, eligibility criteria and how to make a claim, see Practice Notes:

  1. Coronavirus job retention scheme, and

  2. Coronavirus job retention scheme—FAQs

Many law firms are considering whether to furlough staff under the CJRS. The question arises whether it is possible to furlough trainee solicitors and, if yes, what will be the impact on their training contracts if they are furloughed.

Furloughing trainee solicitors

The short answer is yes, it is possible to furlough trainee solicitors, subject to meeting the criteria of the CJRS.

The SRA recognises that your firm may not be able to provide the required level of training or appropriate supervision of trainees’ work, during the coronavirus pandemic. It says it may therefore be appropriate, in those circumstances, to put a trainee on furlough.

For more information on supervising trainees and the standard of training required for trainees, see Practice Note: Supervision of trainees.

The impact of a period of furlough on trainees’ training contracts

When a trainee is taken off furlough, you will need to consider with the trainee whether, as a consequence, their period of recognised training needs to be extended. This will largely depend on the length of time the trainee has been on furlough.

The SRA is aiming to be flexible, although it also wants to ensure that only those who meet the required standards qualify as solicitors. In response to a question on the impact of sickness absence on the length of a training contract, it says that a training period may be extended where a trainee is unable to meet the requirements of the Practice Skills Standards. The duration of the extension is at the discretion of the training principal.

The training principal will need to consider whether the period of furlough will affect their ability to make the declarations required on the trainee’s admission application form. These include certifying that the trainee:

  1. has completed their training contract/period of recognised training

  2. has gained experience and is competent to meet the Practice Skills Standards—see Practice Note: Supervision of trainees—Practice Skills Standards

  3. has a full and complete record of training—see Practice Note: Supervision of trainees—Record keeping

  4. has satisfactorily completed the Professional Skills Course

See further Practice Note: Completion of training contract.

If you conclude that the trainee’s period of recognised training does need to be extended, you will need to notify the SRA of the extension period and that this has been agreed with the trainee.

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