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Thursday, 11 October 2018

The Walking Season - what's it all about?

This is the time of year when lawyers are seen walking the streets of towns and cities across the country. Today is Manchester’s turn. On Wednesday this week it was the turn of Liverpool. In fact, it is not just lawyers. Liverpool saw local politicians, advice workers and concerned citizens walking with solicitors, barristers and judges. The lead walkers included the Lord Mayor, the High Sheriff, President of Liverpool Law Society together with the Chairs of the Women’s Layers Group and the Junior Lawyers Group.

As we walked past one family near the Pier Head I heard someone say – ‘I don’t know what that’s all about.’ So what is it all about? It is about Access to Justice for all.

The primary purpose of the walk is to raise funds for the North West Legal Support Trust. The Trust provides grants to agencies which offer free legal advice and help to those in greatest need. The need for these agencies has grown dramatically since drastic cuts to legal aid funding have seen thousands deprived of the right to legal advice unless they have the money to pay for it. You would expect this need to be met by society. But it isn’t, by a long distance. So the burden falls onto the third sector.  The money raised via the walks helps many places to keep their doors open. My first proper job as a lawyer was at the Vauxhall Law Centre in Liverpool. That is one organisation which has stayed open following support from the trust.

There is more to the walks than just fundraising. They present a great opportunity for lawyers and others concerned with justice, to make a statement that it is important. As one leading judge said at the end of the walk –

'You can have all the human rights in the world but they mean nothing without the means to enforce them'

The walks are also an occasion when hard working lawyers can let their hair down and bring some humour to the streets. So we had walkers dressed as the Titanic and Yellow Submarine posing with George and Ringo (above), scouse celebrities and hair curlers! This year’s Liverpool walk was the best so far in so many different ways.

But the main reason we walk in cities across the land is to show that access to justice is an important right. There are not many votes in justice. She is not missed until she is needed. There are those who refuse to be silent until this is addressed.  And their numbers are growing buy the day.

Ps you can still donate to the Liverpool Walk here –

Monday, 24 September 2018

Legal Aid Lawyers - an endangered species?

I recently attended a fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool focussing on Access to Justice. One disturbing comment from Shadow Lord Chancellor, Richard Burgon prompted this post. He predicted a critical shortage of Legal Aid Lawyers in the future. Where will the next generation of campaigning lawyers come from?

My first real job as a solicitor was at the Vauxhall Law Centre in Liverpool. Back in the early 1980s this Law Centre was in the heart of some of the worst housing in Europe. I applied because it was an interesting and challenging job. I would not have called myself a campaigning lawyer when I started, although that soon changed! The first time you visit a flat with sh*t all over the floor from a backed up toilet changes everything. During my years at the Law Centre I was never short of willing volunteers – law students who saw social welfare law as a career option and wanted real experience. And there was no shortage of opportunities. There were two law centres in Liverpool and one in Warrington. There were also firms which specialised in legal aid work – remember those days?

What a difference a few decades makes! Only a few weeks ago I wrote about the absence of any housing lawyers offering legal aid in Cornwall

Thankfully that has been resolved. There is now one brave solicitor in the entire county!

Earlier this year, the Law Society published figures which showed that the average Criminal Duty Solicitor was 47. Within a few years there could be a desperate shortage –

Considering the current state of our criminal justice system, we are unlikely to see queues of young lawyers wanting to earn an uncertain and meagre living –

Our Universities do a fantastic job with their Law Clinics which enable students to do proper legal work. But they will tell you that this is no substitute for legal aid. Is anyone listening?

It is encouraging to hear the Shadow Justice Minister pledge support for a new generation of young lawyers; promising funding for training opportunities. It was also encouraging to hear his commitment to supporting a new wave of Law Centres. 

But this should not really be a party political issue. Access to Justice is, or should be, a basic human right. What is the point of having rights if you need money to enforce them? The real answer lies in the return to a properly funded system of legal aid, across the country which would breathe life into welfare law across the country and provide a whole new landscape for committed young lawyers.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Concerning Poldark, housing and legal aid deserts


Here are some interesting facts about Cornwall –

1.      Poldark!
2.      The beautiful village of Port Isaac is the setting for Doc Martin,
3.      It is home to Tintagel Castle – said to be the birthplace of King Arthur (above)
4.      It is the second poorest region in Northern Europe -
5.      Even excluding holiday homes, one in ten houses in the county are empty
6.      If you need legal advice on housing matters, you won’t get it unless you have money.

At the end of August, the housing Charity Shelter, closed its office in Truro. It had decided not to apply to renew its legal aid contract for Housing Advice. The reason for the closure was that the charity decided that it should focus work on its 11 urban hubs where there is greatest overall need –

One can understand why a charity would have to make that type of decision.

This was the last surviving provider of legally aided housing advice in the entire county. So now there are none. It is a waste land. If you live in St Ives, you will need to travel almost 80 miles to Plymouth if you need professional advice and help on a housing matter. For us up north, that’s a bit like having to go from Liverpool to Leeds! Just to get some basic legal help.

This is nothing less than a scandal.

Don’t blame Shelter. They are a charity doing their best with limited resources. And why should they shoulder the burden of providing advice to an entire county?

The fault lies well and truly with our government who fail, time and time again, to see access to justice as a priority. It isn’t just Cornwall. Back in July, the Joint Committee on Human Rights warned that large parts of the country had become legal aid deserts.

This has been caused by punitive cuts in the amounts paid to legal aid lawyers, alongside the 2013 removal of huge areas of work from the scope of legal aid. The entitlement to state funded legal aid for those in need began in 1945. Following years of ‘progress’ that entitlement has been reduced to this.

We have a legal system that it is the envy of many.

If we exclude those in need from access to that system, then it becomes a meaningless mockery.

The government is currently reviewing the impact of the 2013 changes. It must urgently acknowledge how those changes have affected the lives of ordinary people and commit to a properly funded system of legal aid.

This is unlikely, there are not many votes in justice, unless we all make as much noise as possible.


Barrister, Russell James who first highlighted this matter has recently tweeted -

Which is good news ... sort of. As he says, it helps access to justice if you know where to find it! And is it really a cause for celebration that an entire county now has one provider of housing advice???

Friday, 10 August 2018

Concerning cold calls, magic registers and Star Wars

This post develops a rant that I posted on Facebook earlier today. During the morning I had 4 calls from a claims farmer. I have a Truecaller App on my phone which told me that it was an Accident Management Company. So, I didn’t pick up. For anyone who is interested the number was  -

When the 5th call came I gave in to temptation and picked up.

A very pleasant caller asked me how I was today, which was very nice. He then launched into his script about the accident I had etc etc. I was trying to think of a witty retort, but I went for the angry approach. I told him that I not had any accident and that I objected to being cold called. He sounded genuinely hurt. He said that he wasn’t cold calling. He was just trying to help. I asked where he got my number from and he replied that he had found my details on the 'national accidents database'. I told him that I had been a lawyer for over 30 years and there was no such thing. He then became aggressive and told me that I was a liar!! I asked if he was in the habit of cold calling people and then insulting them. The call ended at this point.

This is not the first time that I have come across a magic database like this. A few years ago, when hearing loss claims were all the rage, I was told that my name was on a register. This was a register of people who had worked in noisy factories! Not much of register seeing as I’ve worked in an office all my life.

Many of us have had text messages referring to specific sums of money –

It seems that these callers are required to include an element of fantasy into their calls. Honesty is clearly insufficient. Is it me or is getting worse? I seem to get 2 – 3 calls a week. Does my phone number look particularly gullible? All of this is happening at a time when ministers and the media continue to blame victims of accidents for the mythical compensation culture. Surely the time has come for victims, insurers, genuine CMCs and politicians to focus all of their effort where they belong – removing these leeches from our justice system.

When I posted a shorter rant of Facebook I received lots of comments about how best to deal with these callers. The best response was from a friend who said that she once gave the phone to her 5-year-old who proceeded to interrogate the caller about toast and Star Wars…

Friday, 29 June 2018

More stories of troubled lawyers - are we doing enough? Thoughts please?

This is an unusual blog – for me. I am not ranting about injustice but sharing a growing concern and canvassing opinion. Over the last few months I have become increasingly disturbed by the numbers of lawyers – particularly young lawyers, who get themselves into terrible difficulties when things go wrong.

I posted a blog about this a few weeks ago, which had one of my biggest ever responses –

There seems to be no end to these distressing stories.

This week we have read about the voluntary striking off of a young solicitor who backdated 23 letters to ‘giver herself breathing space’ –

Today there is the story of another young lawyer who has been suspended from practice after fabricating a letter which was given to an SRA investigator –

How many times do we have to say it? The short-term discomfort of admitting a mistake, vastly outweighs the horrors of disciplinary action which inevitably follow efforts to cover things up. Do our young lawyers really have no one that they can talk to? The answer to that is – of course they do. Most caring firms will have an open-door policy, which is why these incidents are rare. But they can still be devastating for the lawyer and the firm. And there are clearly a minority of cases where the lawyer does not feel able to speak to a manager.

With all of this in mind I have been thinking about offering a facility, via my consultancy, to enable lawyers – of whatever level – to have a confidential discussion if they find themselves floundering for whatever reason. This will be at no cost to the lawyer. So three questions come from this –

1.      Would something like this serve a purpose? I am aware of the fantastic work done by Law Care - . They certainly offer the best service for those lawyers who need care and support. The Law Society also have an excellent pastoral care helpline -  020 7320 5795. What I have in mind is a much more low-key affair – a confidential sounding board for lawyers who are facing an immediate problem and do not feel that they have anyone to turn to. This might involve anything from a simple word of wisdom to a signposting to someone like Law Care if needed, 

2.      Would there be scope for a wider network of senior and experience lawyers to form a wider group? 

3.      Is there enough support out there anyway?

Answers on a postcard

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Concerning emails, getting a life and watching Love Island

This blog post from Mondipa Foudza in the Law Society Gazette has started me thinking about how my own management of emails has changed over the years.

I am old enough to remember the days when you sent a letter and then waited several days for a reply – unless you had an ultra-high tech opponent who owned a fax machine. Then we began to send and receive emails via our PCs in the late 1990s. This made things a bit more immediate, but you still had to go and switch on your computer.

Then the smart-phone changed the world. Suddenly, our emails began to follow us everywhere we went. My wife once caught me sitting up in bed reading them on holiday in Mexico. I blamed jet lag and the time difference. But in truth they were there, I was awake, and the rest just happened! On a more serious note I once received an aggressive email from a complaining client at 1155 on Christmas Eve – why did I read it? Because my phone was telling me it was there, and I couldn’t resist. 

These incidents caused me to introduce some strict rules which I have found very useful over the years –

1.      I initially started to disable my work emails when I went on holiday. Now, I understand why it is useful to reduce the number of emails crying out for attention when I get back to work. But on balance, getting a life won the day. I made sure that someone had my mobile phone number, so I could be contacted if I became as indispensable as I thought I was. This worked up to a point, but I still found myself with my nose in my phone while watching The Bridge on a Saturday night.

2.      In time, the penny dropped – the world did not cease to orbit the sun if I did not check them all the time. So I really did take the plunge. I firstly disabled notifications altogether. Then I regressed a full decade and removed my account from my phone. Guess what? I’m still alive, the sun is shining, and Trump would have been elected whether I had my emails on or not.

3.      I have never gone back. I check my emails once or twice when I am at home and never on holiday. But I am now in control.

4.      Much of that energy now goes into twitter!!

There is a real benefit in cutting yourself free from your emails. It creates time for you to relax, to read a book, watch the World Cup or even Love Island if you really must. It also creates space for a more considered reply. If you receive a scary email while you are eating out or travelling, there is a real temptation to fire back a reply immediately. How often has someone pressed the send button and then regretted it. Recalling an email does not erase it! If you create time to read emails you will also create time to reply. You might even ask yourself whether a reply can wait for a day or so.

This might not work for everyone. But if your time is ruled by your mail box you need to change things. Now.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

A dishonest claim - and the damage it causes

A recent case has reminded us again of the dangers of exaggerated compensation claims. This time it is a clinical negligence case, but the same issues could arise in any claim involving the alleged consequences of an injury. The facts are summarised in a report in yesterdays’ Litigation Futures –

Mr Atwal alleged that he was significantly disabled and claimed damages just over £800k. It was not disputed that his treatment had fallen below an acceptable standard and that he had suffered some injury as a result. The Trust had offered £30k. He could have had a reasonable claim and secured a fair settlement. As it was he grossly exaggerated the effects of the negligence. He has ended up with a 3 month prison sentence, a £75k adverse costs liability and no damages.

NHS Resolution have published the video footage which led to his downfall –

Cases like this are so frustrating for those who seek justice for victims of medical negligence and accidents. Over the last few years there have been relentless attacks by the media and politicians against the so called ‘compensation culture’. The vast majority of claimants are genuine victims who are simply seeking some acknowledgment that they have been wronged. For many, the compensation is not their main concern. They want to know what happened and who will be held to account. Compensation plays a huge role in providing support for those who often suffer life changing injuries –

Then a case like this comes along and sends us back to the start like a sinister game of snakes and ladders. It is difficult to disagree with the CEO of NHS Resolution that there must be a clear message that ‘you cannot submit fraudulent claims’ with impunity.  They damage everybody.
There is also a real message here for lawyers who represent victims. Any claim for damages must be vigorously scrutinised.

Mr Atwal’s solicitors were, presumably, acting on a Conditional Fee Agreement. They will have suffered massive commercial damage which would bring many firms to their knees. Some might be tempted to submit a six-figure claim on the basis that liability is admitted so ‘we are bound to get more than is offered’. 

A case like this highlights that the consequences can be catastrophic. It also does untold damage to the real vicitms.