© Licensed to London News Pictures. 14/04/2020. London, UK. A clear view of the London city skyline, all the way through to Canary Wharf, from Primrose Hill in North London, during a pandemic outbreak of the Coronavirus COVID-19 disease. Air quality and pollution levels in the capital have been significantly lower since the introduction of a lockdown to fight the spread of COVID-19 . Photo credit: Ben Cawthra/LNP
Clear air over London: one challenge submitted to the FT legal hackathon is to develop ways to sustain environmental benefits once governments lift their lockdowns © Ben Cawthra/LNP

Better air quality, a dramatic cut in carbon emissions and flourishing wildlife are some of the few positive side-effects of lockdowns triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The curbs on human activity may be socially and economically unsustainable, but Matthew Gingell thinks laws and contracts could play a vital role in hanging on to the environmental gains.

When governments start to lift restrictions, they are likely to favour kick-starting their economies over any climate change policy commitments, says Mr Gingell, a lawyer with The Chancery Lane Project, a UK-based pro bono initiative to tackle carbon emissions. “The challenge is, how do we accelerate back into a strong economy without losing the gains we have made on environmental issues?”

He has submitted a challenge based on this question to the legal hackathon launched by the FT earlier this month.

The hackathon aims to tackle some of the urgent challenges posed by Covid-19. It will take place online from April 27 to May 17, organised by Global Legal Hackathon (GLH), and supported by FT Innovative Lawyers. The (recently extended) deadline to register as a participant or suggest a challenge is May 17. The hackathon brings together legal professionals, software developers, designers and businesspeople to develop answers to problems identified by organisations, governments, and individuals.

Mr Gingell, general counsel at Oxygen House, which backs environmental projects, chose to focus on laws and contracts for the challenge, after seeing how companies easily become stuck in environmentally damaging contracts. For instance, if an organisation signs a five-year electricity contract but a better environmental alternative then becomes available, it should be able to get out of it, he argues.

“There are going to be a lot of new contracts drafted as the economy gets back to reality, so what can we put in those contracts to make sure that we are considering the environment as we go?”

Other submissions that focus on longstanding challenges include the education gap. While online learning tools enable students in developed economies to keep on studying, they are not available to those in poorer countries with little or no internet access.

How new technologies can help mitigate the effect of lockdowns on women and girls in particular is the mission proposed for the hackathon by Rangita de Silva de Alwis, associate dean for international programmes at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

Portrait of a poor thailand girl lost in deep thought
Lockdown learning: when school's out, online lessons are harder to access for poorer students © Getty Images/iStockphoto

Another rich seam of ideas is how to make the legal sector more efficient and effective, after the crisis.

Margaret Rose, founder of the UK’s Future Law Institute, proposes a global “meta-database” of the different government policy responses, which would help people understand the legal complexities emerging from the pandemic.

“We were already building a [collaboration] of lawyers worldwide who could work together to define a collective agenda at a legal level and progress that locally in their jurisdictions,” says Ms Rose.

While law firms rushed to collate policy responses along particular themes, “what we didn’t see was in one place, every single policy that every single government had put in place since March 11”, she says.

Her vision includes an online platform with an interactive map, search tools, and data visualisation accessible to researchers around the world.

Chia Chun Leong, head of legal and compliance for the consumer banking group at DBS in Singapore, points to how fragmentation of government policy impeded initiatives to contain the virus outbreak.

If the legal industry had greater access to a wider ecosystem of non-legally trained professionals, it could emerge stronger than ever, he argues. What lessons could be learnt from Covid-19 to foster such an ecosystem, is Mr Leong’s challenge to his peers via the hackathon.

“Organisations like mine have these ideas, and limited resources, though we are very passionate,” says Ms Rose at the Future Law Institute. “We are seeing organisations coming together, not focusing on commercial ends but focusing on what we can do together, how we can use this moment to create a reset that is just, fair and safe for future generations.”

“A hackathon mentality gets practical outputs,” adds Mr Gingell. “It also changes the dynamic — it gets people out of the way of thinking as a lawyer, which often stifles innovation. That’s what you’re trying to do with a hackathon: change perspectives.”

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