Traditionally, international insurance and assistance plans were never particularly inclined to consider legal issues as a critical part of their coverage. It was too difficult and messy to find the right providers in a lot of places. Consequently, why bother with such a complex service?
In fact, the majority of providers that do include some sort of legal coverage in policies would limit its reach and effectiveness. Usually, they just have a list of lawyers that would come at the traveller’s expense, or serve as a bridge to transfer or even lend money for bail purposes. In the rarest cases, some would provide remote legal advice, but limited to transit-related assistance only.
Why is legal assistance needed?
Let’s consider some broadly disseminated misconceptions on international legal assistance:
• Travellers will never face an urgent and unforeseen legal event abroad
It certainly can happen. You can be the most responsible traveller in the world, yet still become a victim, whether out of risk, ignorance or chance. Also wrongfully believed is the concept that legal issues abroad are incarceration related, when in reality there are thousands of potential legal issues in a different country.
• The Embassy will help
Not really. The Embassy will only provide a list of local lawyers at the traveller’s expense and will therefore not assume any costs.
• My lawyer has worldwide expeditious reach
Unfortunately not. In 99.9 per cent of cases, your local counsel will try to find legal help in the country of destination, but not necessarily in a timely fashion and in your required area of law, which can cause painful delays.
• I can quickly find an in-destination law firm willing, able and motivated to react to simple-to-complex general civil or criminal issues as a first responder, at a cost-effective rate
Not really. Why, when a simple payment of a parking or speeding ticket costs thousands of dollars in legal fees for an in-destination, high-end corporate law firm?
Joint responsibility and duty of care for legal assistance
So, we can clearly see the problem of a paucity in legal assistance. However, lacking a comprehensive legal travel complement is not the fault of the international insurance and assistance plans providers alone. Responsibility also lies with the travel industry itself – and the consumer side that does not push and force these plans to update. For example, human resources (HR), travel managers and travel agents do not even question the current risk management standards imposed by a few certification companies, such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) or Committee of Sponsoring Organizations (COSO), and blindly relies on them as a form of relief from ultimate responsibilities.
When we consider that HR and travel managers just look to comply and tick the boxes of a travel risk management form – which is not currently updated for post-Covid times – then they tend to make mistakes. The vicious cycle goes like this: a risk management standards certification company will provide a form to HR and travel managers, who comply with it and purchase the services the risk management standards certification boxes have previously indicated. No questions asked, just relief.
It would appear that HR and travel managers have done their job. But have they really?
Legal point of contact for travellers
The pandemic changed everything. When borders shut down in March 2020, millions of travellers were stuck in foreign countries for legal reasons, not medical ones. The majority were not sick, just legally prohibited to transit, among other limitations such as forced curfews and quarantines. But in that extreme situation, who is a trusted source of legal information?
In a complex regulatory environment, it’s the job of HR, travel managers and travel agents to stop for a moment, rethink, then analyse the new problems their travellers may experience abroad.
When any traveller is outside of their country, they need a ‘just-in-case’ legal point of contact
Today, when any traveller is outside of their country, they need a ‘just-in-case’ legal point of contact, who becomes the trusted party to assist and navigate an unknown legal environment – potentially exacerbated by language and cultural barriers. In a perfect world, the right path is to access a trusted network, provided by an international insurance and/or assistance company. But it doesn't exist.
As a worldwide legal assistance provider, we have seen everything. And it’s quite common that a simple legal issue can escalate into a nightmare. Disputes around smoking, alcohol, drugs, driving and common civil issues are more common than you would think. But another misconception is that legal issues abroad are limited to sophisticated cases involving incarcerations.
Travellers may face legal issues abroad out of ignorance, mistake, chance, bad luck or just by being a victim of a crime
For example, just before the requirement of entering the US with a negative Covid test was lifted, we had to deal with many individuals facing judicial procedures in Latin America for being scammed into purchasing false Covid tests, just to be detained for holding a false document when trying to get back home. As mentioned, travellers may face legal issues abroad out of ignorance, mistake, chance, bad luck or just by being a victim of a crime. The issue is, who’s there to expeditiously help a traveller navigate the unknown legal system? Particularly when the systems themselves can change from one week to the next in this Covid era.
Key questions for HR, travel managers and travel agents:
• What are our duty of care, safety and prevention policies?
• What are my travellers insured for?
• What are my travellers NOT insured for?
• What are the contingency plans for uninsured situations?
• Can the uninsured items become insured per the new needs of my duty of care, safety and prevention policies?
• Which insurance and/or assistance company would be willing to adapt and provide comprehensive solutions?
Specific legal risks at specific times for international travellers
One upcoming event that deals with legal risks for travellers is the Qatar World Cup in November.
Just imagine: close to a million football fans, all entrapped in Doha – a city twice the size of Manhattan – surrounded by a desert with not a lot to do or visit, with three to four days to ‘fill up’ between games. Throw in restricted hours for drinking, in a totally unknown legal environment, with obvious language and cultural barriers.
You can be the most responsible traveller in the world, yet still become a victim, whether out of risk, ignorance or chance
Adding a comprehensive legal component to international insurance and assistance plans for those heading to the World Cup is a huge business opportunity, as the execution of the service will almost certainly be quite low. It also undoubtedly delivers value to the plan, as you provide a ‘peace of mind’ solution that adds to the medical component of the policy. One may argue that in this particular event, legal help becomes more valuable than medical assistance.
I hope this article has shown the inescapable duty of the travel industry into rethinking logical policies on safety and prevention while travelling, relative to current needs.