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Legal Proceedings during COVID-19 in the U.A.E.

Legal Proceedings during COVID-19 in the U.A.E.

Lawgical with LYLAW and Tim Elliot

08 September 2020

Tim Elliot:  Hello and welcome to Lawgical, the regular legal podcast from the Dubai-based law firm, HPL Yamalova & Plewka, still the Gulf Region’s first and only legal podcast.  I’m Tim Elliot, back distanced here in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers offices with the Managing Partner of the firm, Ludmila Yamalova.  Good to see you.  You are looking well.

Ludmila Yamalova:  Thank you very much.  Great to see you too.  It’s been too long.

Tim Elliot:  Now, today on Lawgical, we’re talking legal proceedings, but legal proceedings during these, as they keep saying, unprecedented COVID-19 times.  Ludmila, if you’re ready, let’s get Lawgical.

Ludmila Yamalova:  Let’s get Lawgical.

Tim Elliot:  First off, we entered lock-down, as we record this, just over five months ago.  Ludmilla, looking back to mid-March is it became clear we’d all be spending a lot more time at home with family and not spending as much at work as we had been, how did things seem then for you?  I’m asking specifically personally, but also looking ahead in your position as the owner of a legal firm.

Ludmila Yamalova:  Well, I perhaps would say that even though we’re not through this yet, but no one really, certainly we did not predict for things to be where they are today, and we are now at the end of August.  From a very simple business perspective, we were anticipating a severe setback for a number of reasons, but we were expecting maybe two to three months and thought come July we’ll be back more or less, not so to normal, but we’ll be picking up steam.  Well, now we are at the end of August and things are still difficult.  They are still challenging, and they’re not just challenging in this part of the world, they are challenging all over the world.  More importantly, we are not quite certain how much longer things will continue to be challenging in the way that they are today.  At a bigger level, at a higher level, so many fundamental aspects of running a business and just going around our daily lives have changed significantly and have changed in ways that ultimately in results we have yet to see and how things will gel together will take some time for us to process.

For us as a business, and we are a law firm, we provide legal services, and that is a service, if you will, a commodity that is of much relevance to the community during good times or bad times.  During good times, people want to either upgrade or merge, buy another business, go into a new business, and they are happy that they need legal services then.  During bad times, people are trying to scale things down, be it moving into a smaller office, or exit from a business, or close a business, or terminate employees, or scale down their businesses, whatever it is, it often requires legal advice.

You think we are in an industry that would be more or less immune from the pandemic, but it’s not so.  As a law firm, I would say perhaps we are not unique.  Many other firms have either closed down or are closing down or scaling down or streamlining the operations and consolidating their offices and consolidating their operations and their staff.  As you’ve rightfully said, I think the worst is yet to manifest itself.  We are now in August and we were expecting for things to at least turn the corner and start working towards the new future, and we are not there yet.

There have been a number of positive developments that we experienced during the last three or four months which perhaps we didn’t expect, and those developments, particularly regarding the embracing of the technology from both business and private sectors, as well as the government.  That has helped.  That is one of the other outcomes we did not quite expect when we were going into the lock-down.  Then the lock-down, obviously by very definition, means we’re all locked down in our prospective, in this case, homes, so how do you conduct a business when your physical movements are restricted?  There have been a number of positive developments that have come out from that, and in particular as far as the legal profession is concerned, that has been promising and encouraging and more importantly, I’d say moving ahead in many ways our life, because of these developments and these new initiatives, will be more efficient, and therefore, in some ways even more beneficial.  That is a positive realization, and I hope that a lot of these new initiatives that have been put is place will continue to stay, in other words, will not phase out as we go back into whatever the new normal is.

Tim Elliot:  There’s nothing like forcing a change to make change that little bit easier, for sure.  I want to talk to you more about technology and the effects of technology, the benefits of technology, during COVID-19 a little bit later, but I really want to talk to you about what’s happened during COVID-19 generally speaking.  Give us a helicopter view of legal proceedings and what you’ve seen the last what – five to five and a half months.

Ludmila Yamalova:  Sure.  To start with, when the lock-down did happen, everything got closed.  The courts were closed.  The prosecution was closed.  The immigration authorities were closed.  The police were closed.  The translating offices were closed.  All government, the land department, RERA, any other possible authority that we work with as a law firm, they were closed, physically closed.  The closure happened so quickly.  It wasn’t like there was a transition into the digital realm from the physical.  It took some time.  All of sudden, from our day-to-day operations, we no longer had courts to go to, and that’s not just physically to go to, but the courts were not holding hearings and obviously judges were spending their lock-down time in their own homes, so nothing was happening.  That’s on the one hand.

On the other hand, the country was closed, and that is the movement of people stopped.  The U.A.E. is a very heavily expat-based society and business, and we depend on the outside traffic, by way, for example, events or tourism.  We normally host so many global events here.  Similarly, the hospitality industry, normally we welcome millions and millions of tourists and flying emirates, or Etihad, and staying at all the local hotels.  That stopped.  Then on the corporate side of things, our clients could no longer fly into the U.A.E.  They had companies.  They had businesses, and they were stranded, either here or in their respective countries, but they couldn’t fly in, so they couldn’t even really do business the way that they normally do business.  To add to that, just as a team, we all could no longer work together in the physical space all of a sudden.  We are a small team and leanly staffed, so it was easier to adapt, but this was just a microcosm of what was happening at a much larger stage.

Tim Elliot:  Let’s talk about the courts and how the courts do.  They’re not of course open now, but how do hearings in the DIFC, and I guess the Dubai courts as well, now work?  How do things look?

Ludmila Yamalova:  Yes.  Perhaps a month into the lock-down or maybe three weeks into the lock-down, a lot of the services that I just ran through started offering online services.  The courts started offering online hearings and introducing a lot more online initiatives such as, for example, submissions to court, submissions to the police, submissions to the prosecutors.  Some of these services previously existed in an online platform to some extent, but much, much, much more limited.  Obviously it took a few weeks for things to settle down and perhaps to evolve to where they are right now, but those services started to become available a few weeks into the lock-down, so all of a sudden, the courts were back in business, a very different kind of domain in terms of just the physical interaction with it, but the judges were holding hearings, and the submissions were being made.  They were all being made online through various systems, and the hearings were being conducted online with video conferencing.  That was quite interesting because you can imagine so many people had to, not just the judges, but all the lawyers and the advocates had to adapt and adopt the new systems.  This was quite interesting because often, just to give you a visual, the first few court hearings were conducted and some of the advocates appearing, or even the judges, all you could see were their noses because many of them were attending these hearings from their phones just through video conferencing.  Just the holding of the phones, that in and of itself was kind of an interesting experience, and also who could attend or who could log into these hearings and whether there was any kind of way of registering for the attendance of the hearings, those are some of the growing pains that were quickly settled.  But as a result, fast forward a few months, now all of the hearings for the most are still being conducted online with this visual conferencing as the default practice.  From the practical standpoint, I have to tell you, we love it.  As a law firm, we love it for a number of reasons:  One is just the efficiency, the efficiency of actually attending these court hearings now online versus having to leave the office, drive to the court, obviously get there earlier, park there, go to the courtroom, and then wait your turn and during that period of time, you can’t really do very much of anything else.  You’re just sitting in the courtroom waiting for your turn to be called.

Now, you skip all that.  You’re just sitting at the same desk, doing your work, and you register for the hearing and you just wait for your turn to be called, and in the meantime, you can do your other productive ventures.  It has been extremely efficient, has led to a lot of efficiency.  It also has allowed us to attend many more hearings that we would have otherwise not been able to attend for one reason or another, because of the cost to the client, or because of the logistics of attending the hearing.  It has also allowed for clients to attend hearings because equally so, they don’t have to be in the U.A.E.  They can just log in and attend these hearings virtually.  That a great benefit, a benefit that never existed before, and the majority of clients don’t attend hearings.  But all of a sudden, now you have the ability to attend a hearing from anywhere you are in the world, and this is real time.  That has been great.  We really, really enjoyed that development of the judicial system here and the authorities here and how quickly they’ve embraced technology and continued to rely on it.  That’s just the local courts, and by the way, that continues now.

Even for the RDC judgments, for the Rental Disputes Committee, the RDC court, now all of these hearings are happening online.  Let’s say you are a tenant, and you want to terminate your contract, and you are stuck in France, for example.  In the past, it would have been impossible for you and very expensive for you to actually litigate the case, and as a result, in many cases people would just basically abandon their obligations.  They would run away because it was too expensive to fly, for example, to attend a hearing, and they certainly didn’t want to hire a lawyer because cost wise they couldn’t afford it, or it wasn’t worth it for them.  Now that option of appearing by yourself in court from anywhere in the world is the default practice.  That’s been highly efficient and very beneficial for the community.  That’s just the local courts.

Before I move on, even in the local courts, even if you don’t speak Arabic, we have seen this before, the courts now also make their translators available in the same format.  There you are.  You could be based in the U.S. and attending conference with the court and you don’t speak Arabic, so the courts do actually make translators available right there and then in the same forum, and you can conduct these hearings with a translator available to you by the court.  Very, very efficient and that, I would hope, would encourage more people to actually address their issues through the proper forum versus just leaving things unresolved just because they don’t know how to handle things.  That’s the local courts.

Now, similarly, and this has been a great benefit to a lot of people, is, for example, the notarization of powers of attorney.  Most people and businesses who have dealt with the U.A.E. know that in order for any foreign document to be admitted in the U.A.E., it needs to go to a very expensive and time-consuming legalization process of a document.  But the best way to empower somebody or to do anything in the U.A.E. is to get a U.A.E. based power of attorney, a U.A.E. notarized power of attorney that is signed and stamped by a notary based in the U.A.E.  That is always a preferred option.  However, if you are stranded outside of the U.A.E., be it as a business or an individual, how do you manage your business because you cannot fly into the country and the option of legalizing your documents through the embassies was no longer available.  It’s still, I think, not available because most embassies, they’ve limited their services only to the most essential services, and legalization of documents is not one.  Now the U.A.E., the notary has made notarization of powers of attorney available online, and so that’s been a tremendous benefit to a lot of people.  Let’s say you wanted to buy a property or you wanted to sell a property, you want to sign a contract, you want to terminate a lease agreement, you want to make some changes in your company, but you’re stranded abroad, or one of your partners is abroad.  Now you can do all of these powers of attorney online.  It’s fairly efficient.  It takes a few days, but it’s not a very difficult process.  Also, with regard to registration of a will, for example, the DIFC courts and the DIFC Wills and Probate Center where you register wills before required physical presence to attend hearings and even registration of the wills.  As of now, and it looks like this become their standard practice, everything is done online.  All the hearings in the DIFC, and we have attended a number of them, they are all done online with the judges conducting hearings, business as usual, except that you no longer need to be physically present, which once again allows for a lot of efficiency and economies of financial spending.  Also, with the registration of wills, in the past you had to be here, and you had to register a will in the DIFC.  As you can imagine with the pandemic and all of the health issues that have resulted as a direct consequence of the pandemic, people are a lot more aware of their mortality and so therefore the question of wills comes forward a lot more.  People have realized, oh my gosh, we have this real estate in the U.A.E. but we are now stuck outside of the U.A.E.  What happens if anything were to happen?  All of a sudden, they’ve become more receptive to the idea of actually registering a will to make sure that their estate distribution in the U.A.E. is settled.  Once again, the DIFC Wills and Probate now allows and, in fact, encourages registration of wills online.  From what we can tell, that’s the plan for the future.  As a result, we’ve registered a number of wills that way for people who are based outside of the U.A.E. and have not been in the U.A.E. for a number of months, if not years.

Tim Elliot:  It’s interesting because it begs the question, doesn’t it, that this is the way forward, the technology that’s enabling these processes to be expedited that much faster, that much more easily online.  These processes have to stay.  It really seems like COVID, in a strange kind of way, has been this final push to real e-government the U.A.E. has been promoting for so long.  A friend of mine said to me on a podcast I did recently that he’s glad – it’s not quite the right word – but glad in a way for one thing about coronavirus because it happened now, rather than 1992.  We have the technology now to be able to handle certain aspects that much better, Zoom, video conferencing, WhatsApp, etc.  I want to ask a little bit more about the technological implementations that we’re seeing and how they’ve affected or shifted or changed the way we go about legal proceedings, and also to see whether you think that this is the way that things are going to stay.

Ludmila Yamalova:  Well, I personally have been pleasantly surprised and impressed at how beneficial and helpful technology can be and is able to be in a very short time-frame.  We are seeing the benefits.  There are plenty of benefits for us, even at a client level.  There is also a mental paradigm shift that has happened as a result of what we’ve just gone through.  It the past it the default expectation from all parties concerned was to have a face-to-face meeting.  Clients, for example, in the legal field wanted to come to the office, wanted to meet with you in person, and often that required quite a bit of planning and often required actually flying into the country just for the meeting.  When you have multiple people trying to attend the same meeting, it just took so much more planning and organization and obviously cost.  Now, we conduct Zoom meetings with clients.  One is in Australia.  The other one is in America.  We’re able to have one conversation linking in all the parties and without really much organization or cost.  I don’t really see us moving away from this.  It’s not just the technology, but it’s also the mental shift.  I can see how for us as a law firm, those who are sort of sitting here on the receiving end of the clients, we are receiving them here, even we would prefer to meet with clients on Zoom, for example, or on Microsoft just because it is so much more efficient.  Then also in addition to this, I used Zoom as an example, the technology, but the ability to share documents.  We’ve done so many deals and settlement agreements during this COVID-19 time for clients without having seen them in person because there we are.  We’ll pull up on the shared screen the agreement.  We go through it together.  We amend it together.  Everybody is commenting on it, irrespective of where people are.  I think that’s been great, and I hope it never goes away.  I hope that more people will continue to embrace this.

Then, on the other hand, with even the ability to access information, the webinars, oh, the webinars that authorities are holding or just private businesses that in the past used conferences, seminars, even continuing education course in the past was either a chore or you wanted to do it but just couldn’t do it logistically because it requires you to leave the office and drive to the particular venue and that will be half a day out of your life.  Now, it’s all available.  It’s all here.  We’ve attended so many of these continuing education courses, so many of these other events, and webinars and conferences that otherwise we just wouldn’t have.  Cost wise and logistics wise, we just wouldn’t have been able to do it.  We are, in a way, perhaps could be even smarter by having this technology at our fingertips.  It’s been beneficial and positive.

I think there is a flip side to it, for example, the real estate.  Now as more businesses and people embrace this online ability to do business, conduct business, perhaps we will not need as much office space as we used to before.  That perhaps will affect the real estate business, in particular commercial space significantly.  I’m sure there will be a few other side effects, but overall, this country in particular is very well prepared I’d say and geared up to embrace the new world.

Tim Elliot:  I’d say that’s true.  I mean we saw video conferencing opening up exponentially back in the middle of March and it now is the norm, after years of it not being the norm.  Let me just take you back to one point you mentioned earlier on the power of attorney.  I think that is so key.  It’s so important.  Would you just run through very briefly because I think a lot of people would be interested in this, how it works now, how drafting and signing a power of attorney works in the current COVID climate, if you like.

Ludmila Yamalova:  Sure.  The way it starts, obviously since it’s still in the Arab world, the ultimate signing is happening, so the document has to be translated in Arabic.  As before, it can be in dual languages.  We have the contact details of the notary.  First once we have agreed on the text of the power of attorney with the client, we will send it to the notary for them by email to review and basically raise any questions if there are any questions.  Then ultimately the notary will have to give the contact details of the client, and they will schedule a time to call the client because they visually have to see.  They use BOTIM.  That’s the U.A.E. video technology, kind of like Facetime which is our own version.  They will call the client at a particular hour and day so that they visually can see them and confirm the details in the power of attorney and the picture, because by that time we will haves sent to the notary the passport copy or the emirates ID, whatever is the relevant identification documents, and they will confirm that they’ve seen the client and that it is the person that is signing visually, and then they’ll send basically the executed copy of the document.  The client will sign it.  We will send the copy to the notary, and they will add their stamp and then send it our way.  It is a few little steps in terms of if you compare it to if you do it in person when you just go and get the document stamped right there and then.  Here, there is a little bit of scheduling and following up, but ultimately within a week or so you can have it all done.  But it relies on BOTIM in particular in the U.A.E., the video technology that has made it all possible.  By the way, most of the court proceedings are also being attended through BOTIM.

Tim Elliot:  You can easily see how huge a difference this is for people.

Ludmila Yamalova:  Oh, huge.  We have so many people that operate businesses here and they just couldn’t resign themselves.  They won’t be able to do any kind of structural changes to the business, for example, because that particular partner or signatory to the business just cannot fly into the country.  Because you cannot even do a power of attorney from outside because it would have to be attested by the various embassies, and the embassies are not providing that services.  They have resigned themselves to the fact.  Okay, we are just going to wait and see how many months from here somebody will be able to fly in.  Well, now we’ve done a number of powers of attorney for people in corporate capacities that now allow them to go back and start running their business more or less as normal.  The same thing, for example, for landlords who have properties here and who perhaps previously would either manage it themselves or rely on somebody else who is not in the country to help them manage those properties.  How do you rent out a property or how do you take possession or delivery of a property if you are not here?  We’ve been doing a lot of those powers of attorney.  We’ve unfortunately had a number, a fairly significant increase, of inheritance matters because a number of people have, at least our clients or people we have been dealing with, have come to us because of a death in the family.  Once again, how do you deal with that?  Your power of attorney always comes in first because you need to give somebody here on the ground power of attorney to be able to deal with the asset or the state here.  It’s come in so handy in so many different ways.  It surprises me that many people don’t know about it.

Tim Elliot:  Can I put you on the spot for a second, in a good way?

Ludmila Yamalova:  Absolutely.

Tim Elliot:  We started this podcast by me saying, go back to the middle of March, five and a half months or so ago, and give me your thoughts at that time, looking into the COVID lens as it were.  Let’s reverse that.  Look back over the last five and half months, in terms of legal proceedings, the stuff that you do as a matter of course every day in your business, and just give us your final thoughts of where we are now as we really start to emerge from lock-down, I think you can argue quite clearly, did you think this is where you’d be?

Ludmila Yamalova:  No.  Absolutely not.  I mean, we always knew the U.A.E. has been very proactive at embracing technology and striving towards the e-government.  In many ways, it’s very advanced.  They had already been a lot more ahead of the game compared to some of the other countries, including the U.S., but this rapid, perhaps a leap forward, and embracing of these new technologies in the most fundamental ways such as conducting court hearings, we didn’t expect.  We honestly did not expect.  We thought it would take – perhaps I couldn’t even fathom, that’s way we were planning that perhaps by July things will settle down and we will be able to go back to business.  That part of the pandemic is still sort of ongoing, but in terms of at least being back to business, we were able to go back to business a lot earlier and a lot faster and a lot more seamlessly than I’m aware of even happening in other parts of the world.  Sitting here today and looking back, we are a lot, a lot, a lot more efficient, a lot more efficient and in many positive ways.  With this efficiency, I feel like also we are much more capable of doing many more things just because information is so much more available to us at our fingertips, something that just wasn’t as available before.  I think with regard to that aspect, in the business and with technology, we are much better off.  Maybe that was the push that we needed.  We were quite obviously well positioned to embrace this push towards the new norm must faster than other countries have, so I hope we continue to move in that direction.  I hope there won’t be going back because it’s not necessary to go back to where we were before, at least with regards to a lot of these systems and administrations.

Tim Elliot:  The new normal legal proceedings during COVID-19, that’s another episode of Lawgical.  Ludmila Yamalova you heard just then.  Ludmila is the Managing Partner here at Yamalova & Plewka.  As it always is, a learning experience, thank you again.

Ludmila Yamalova:  Always, thank you to you, Tim.

Tim Elliot:  If you have a legal question you need answered in a future episode of Lawgical, you can WhatsApp it to us at 00971 52 525 1611.  If you’d like a consultation with a qualified U.A.E. experienced legal professional, all you have to do is click the Contact button at LYLawyers.com.