Total Pageviews

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Pro What??

Lawyers are often accused of only being concerned with making money. If that was ever the case then it has certainly changed in my working life.

One problem is that when they do get involved in free legal work for those most in need it gets a Latin name that no-one can understand. To us lawyers the phrase is Pro Bono. To most non lawyers it either means nothing or it is something to do with a well known Irish rock Star! If it was called Free Legal work then everyone would get the picture.

The reality is that many lawyers and their firms spend hours on free work. My first job as a solicitor, in the 1980s was in a Law Centre in what was then one of the most deprived areas in Europe. The centre existed to provide legal support free of charge. We had a voluntary clinic on a Tuesday night at which local lawyers would give 3 – 4 hours of their own time to advise on areas of law not covered by the centre.

Almost 60% of solicitors have provided free legal assistance at some time. There are a number of agencies which co-ordinate this work -  

This doesn’t always get the publicity it deserves and the name certainly doesn’t help.

The need for this kind of legal support is going to increase dramatically next year when we experience the most devastating cuts to legal aid since its creation. Those who are most in need from the disabled to genuine asylum seekers to victims of medical negligence are going to find it impossible to access legal support. Some reports show that of those who appeal against refusal of disability benefits as many as 80% succeed if they are represented.

The legal profession faces a dilemma. We have opposed the cuts from the start. This is because we support a society where all citizens have equal access to justice regardless of wealth. I remain of the view that the cuts are misconceived, unfair and a false economy. If lawyers then increase even further the amount of free work then isn’t this doing the government’s work for it? If people continue to access lawyers because it is being done for free then the politicians might see that as a job well done.

That is obviously wrong.

But in the meantime there are still those in need.

There are lawyers who will take up their cases for little or no pay. But that cannot mean that the message will be abandoned. The case for a properly funded scheme available to all is too strong to abandon and this is why the fight will continue.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Changing times - Changing Lawyers?

On Friday we looked at how Solicitors market their services and the importance of social media. There is now an interesting report published by Legal futures which seems to confirm that the legal profession in this country has much to learn as far as technology is concerned.

The report has been prepared for The Law Society and The Legal Services Board.

57% of Solicitors get the majority of their work from existing clients. So this suggests that most clients tend to return to the firm they know. That is certainly good news. For all of the advertising and marketing firms may for, there is nobody more important than the existing client. Do a good job for them and they will come back and also recommend friends and family. It is fair to say that a firm’s client database should be the foundation for any marketing. This is also how firms have traditionally brought in business and it clearly works. There is no better way to sell your business than to do a good job at the right price.

But the world is changing. Following the introduction of Alternative Business Structures we are starting to see some major brands come into the legal marketplace –

These companies will bring with them modern sophisticated marketing ideas and Solicitors cannot rest on their laurels!

As I said last week, 75% of those looking for lawyers in the USA now use Social Media and especially Facebook. That is something which law firms in the Uk ignore at their peril.

The report also notes that nearly 80% of firms mainly act for clients in their own region. In the new world ahead the firms that thrive will be those that widen their horizons. There is no longer any need to limit work to those nearby. With the increased use of emails, Skype and Facebook etc, lawyers can communicate as effectively with a client in Cornwall as they can with those in Carlisle! If you are good at your work you can do the same good job wherever the work is. But again that work has to be developed by modern media. That is what the new players will do.

I would expect that client research in a couple of years will look very different.

We live in interesting and changing times!

Friday, 26 October 2012

Family Solicitor or Facebook Friend??

Here’s a question. Where do you go to find a lawyer?

There was a time when this was straightforward. Most people went to their local High Street firm or used the ‘Family solicitors’ who they had known for years. They were the days when most solicitors were a bit like GPs and did a bit of everything. We are now in a highly specialised world and those days are largely gone. In many ways that is not a bad thing.

So is it adverts in the press, radio or TV? Is it personal recommendation? Is it through a third party such as a Claims Management Company who will take the basic details and sell the case on to the lawyers? These continue to be frequently used.

It seems that the legal profession itself is missing out by not understanding the importance of Social Media.

According to a report in today’s Guardian – ‘more than three-quarters of people looking for a lawyer in the US did so online and Facebook was the most popular resource used by consumers in their searches.’

This is a surprise – not that clients look online but that lawyers have not got the message.

I have been an avid social media user for years. Admittedly it was originally to discuss books, music and Everton FC! But sites like Facebook and Twitter are now so influential that they becoming leading market places. We are invited to ‘like’ a huge variety of pages from multi-national PLCs to local charities. I have said before that social media is how the world communicates –

Social media enables lawyers to communicate with the public in way and around topics which are of interest and concern to them. And it is immediate. What better way to spread the news about changes in the law or to discuss events in the news? And of course any lawyer must have a blog (!!) -

Those firms who do not embrace this are at risk of being left behind.

Those who do embrace social media have an opportunity to network in a way that we have never known before..

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Think first tattoo later!!

I have been tempted to do many things in my time!

But thankfully that has never included getting a tattoo. They always seem to be a bit permanent. When I was younger they were mainly associated with men who had anchors on their arms – a bit like Popeye. But now they are a real fashion statement and seen on actors, models and footballers.

But things can go wrong and anyone planning on having one should take great care.

After a few drinks a tattoo might seem a good idea but it can be tricky to put things right.

My own firm is involved in case where a young mum had her child’s name tattooed on her arm and the artist unfortunately spelt the name wrong. This is not an error that can be easily corrected. The poor woman has a very good case but it would have been far better if she had not had to go through it all. Mistakes can happen but you can still minimise the risk by choosing your artist with care.

According to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 , it is necessary for anybody carrying out a tattooing business to be registered – failure to do so is an offence. St Helens Council near Liverpool has published helpful advice on its website –

Using a registered tattooist guarantees a level of competence and hygiene. They may be more expensive but much pain and expense might be avoided. You might be surprised by the dangers that are involved as shown in the guidance published by the Essex HPA –

If you have a tattoo, or any other type of beauty treatment which goes wrong you have the same rights to sue as a person who is the victim of poor medical treatment.

But better than that, follow the St Helens advice and think before you ink!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Since when was a white stick a dangerous weapon??

Colin Farmer has virtually no sight. This is a disability from which he suffers following two strokes. He walks with the aid of a white stick. On Friday last week he was walking through Chorley to meet some friends. It was daylight.

Because of his disability he walks at what he has described as a ‘snail’s pace.’

At the same time the local police had had a complaint that there was someone in Chorley carrying a sword.

One of the police officers somehow managed to mistake the unfortunate Mr Farmer for the villain. He also managed, in broad daylight, to mistake his white stick for a sword. Without making further inquiries he fired 50,000 volts at him with a Taser gun. Then to make things worse, he handcuffed his innocent victim once he was on the ground and, only then, noticed his mistake.

If this wasn’t so serious it would be comical. 

It is in fact rather terrifying to think that an innocent and disabled person can be severely assaulted without warning. There are guidelines for Taser use which include the need for a clear warning of what is going to happen if a person does not co-operate with the police. Mr. Farmer had no such warning -

"The Taser hit me in the back and it started sending all these thousands of volts through me and I was terrified. I mean I had two strokes already caused by stress. I dropped the stick involuntarily and I collapsed on the floor face down."

He was obviously posing no danger to anybody –

‘They could have walked past me, driven past me in a van or said 'drop your weapon’."

The police have apologised, although the officer himself remains on duty. Now, either he himself has very poor eyesight, or he is an aggressive officer who was chomping at the bit to use his Taser, but can the people of Chorley walk safely down their streets with such a person at large. 

If you or I had done that to an innocent blind person we would be sitting in a cell now!

Colin has a rock solid civil claim for damages against the local police service that is legally responsible for his actions. But we also need to have a full investigation into this. If police are going to carry lethal weapons we need to know that they will use them responsibly.

Thank goodness he wasn’t armed.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Jimmy Savile and why we need answers

We have all been shocked by the developing story of sex abuse allegations against Jimmy Savile. 

There are no fewer than 340 lines of inquiry being pursued by the Metropolitan Police following evidence from forces across the country. The allegations are increasing both in severity and in number –

This is becoming one of the most extensive investigations of its kind in recent years.

Questions are now being raised about whether there is any point in using limited resources investigating allegations where the offender cannot now be prosecuted. That may be so but there are wider issues here and the matter should be given the fullest possible investigation for a number of reasons –

  1. The victims need to know that they are being heard; that they will not be disregarded as many seem to have been over the years.
  2. Others may well have been involved. This could lead to criminal charges and also civil proceedings if organizations such as the BBC could and should have done more to protect the vulnerable victims.
  3. There could be significant civil claims for compensation against Savile’s estate. There is very little that money can do in situations like this but it is at least an acknowledgment that a victim is entitled to justice.
  4. Society needs to send a clear message that abuse of this kind is never acceptable, regardless of the high profile of the person involved.
  5. Lessons need to be learned for the future.

In addition there is a legacy charity which carries his name. This raises legal complications as the trustees will want to distance themselves from him –

There is no doubt that this case raises issues of huge importance and it is to be hoped that the concerns are given all of the attention and resources that they deserve.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Claims go down but the price goes up!

I recently raised the issue about who is really making money from compensation claims –

This is against the background of concerted attacks on victims, and their lawyers, who are blamed for creating a compensation culture.  It is worth repeating here that the so called ‘compensation culture’ is widely accepted to be a myth. The myth is put out by the insurance industry and repeated by the media and politicians.

There is no evidence to support the existence of such a culture. Indeed according to recent research by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, there has been a significant drop in the number of whiplash claims –
t is clear that significant number of victims do not actually claim at all. Many of those who do claim are encouraged to do so by insurance companies who have made huge profits from referral fees by to them for claims that they generate. It is notable that the reduction in claims has not led to a reduction in premiums.

Direct Line is a major player in this field and owns the well known Churchill brand. They have recently announced an intention to move in the provision of legal services and openly admit to having received over £100m in referral fees over the last three years –

That is a staggering sum by anyone’s standards, and still the finger is pointed at victims.

It is good news that the industry has been referred to the OFT because of their practices.

It is true that there a tiny minority of false or exaggerated claims. But the vast majority of victims suffer genuine and significant injuries and are vilified in the media for pursuing fair compensation. Nobody can deny the need for reform here.

But that needs to be focussed on where it is needed – and it is not the genuine victims who are at fault.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

When should a Facebook Post be a crime

It seems like we can’t keep social media out of the news these days.

Earlier this week internet troll Matthew Woods was imprisoned for 12 weeks for posting grossly offensive comments on Facebook about the April Jones tragedy. This has again raised the debate about when an offensive or threatening comment on a social media site should lead to criminal action and even imprisonment.

In the famous twitter joke case the courts eventually decided that if a comment was clearly meant to be a joke then a criminal conviction was not appropriate –

In the wake of this the Director of Public Prosecution announced an intention to issue guidelines about what might result in criminal action. Those guidelines are still awaited.

The Matthew Woods case has led to further debate about freedom of speech and whether it is appropriate to jail somebody for posting comments which are intended to be humorous, however offensive they might be. Well known commentator Joshua Rozenberg thinks that criminal proceedings are taking things too far –

‘People who cause needless hurt and offence to bereaved families and their supporters should be censured, shunned and shamed. Prosecution and possible imprisonment should be reserved for those who make credible threats to kill or maim others, putting their victims in genuine fear for their safety.’

This is an important time as our criminal justice system adapts to a new and developing world of social media. Do we allow total freedom to post comments however much offence and upset they cause? Or do we draw a line in the sand and say that freedom of speech can only go so far?

I am a passionate defender of freedom of speech. People should have the right to express views which I might find abhorrent. But on the other hand the point must also be reached where society says that something is so extreme in its offence that action must be taken.

Watch this space!

Monday, 8 October 2012

Employment rights to be sold off for shares!!

The Government seems determined to remove employment rights by some means or other.

We have talked before about plans to simply abolish the right to claim for Unfair Dismissal –

At the Conservative Party’s Annual Conference, the Chancellor has today announced plans to force new starters to effectively sell their rights in return for shares. This will extend to basic rights such as Unfair dismissal and Redundancy –

It will also increase to 16 weeks the notice that returning mums will have to give of their intention to go back to work after maternity leave.

Existing staff will not be forced to take part.

There is still an element of compulsion here which is effectively taking away rights which workers in this country have enjoyed for decades under different ruling parties. A promise of shares is a poor price to pay for such fundamental rights. If a company is not performing well the value of the shares could collapse leaving the workforce with no rights and worthless shares.

The proposal also assumes that staff are only interested in money. Most would prefer be able to go to work and have the security that they cannot be sacked at the whim of bosses. No amount of shares can compensate for that. Tribunals can order bosses to re-instate staff who are wrongly sacked. There can be no re-instatement if someone has been forced to sell off their rights.

This seems to be a poorly considered proposal.

Employees are bound to feel that their rights are being sold off. Employers themselves are not crying out for a wholesale removal of rights –

So we can anticipate strong opposition from all sides and hopefully this idea will be consigned to the scrapheap where it belongs!

Friday, 5 October 2012

Kenyan Torture Shame and The Long arm of Justice

We often hear mention of the long arm of the law.

It certainly has a habit of catching up with some wrongdoers many years after the event. That has recently been the case with the Hillsborough Independent Panel Report which should finally see those who were at fault, on the day and in the subsequent cover up, brought to justice.

There have also been the convictions, this year, of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the 1993 racist murder of Stephen Lawrence –

We now add to this list the case of the Kenyan torture victims. They were subjected to the most horrific treatment at the hands of British Officials in the 1950s. These crimes were committed in our name. The government had argued that a fair trial was not possible due the length of time which has passed. But Mr Justice McCombe has today ruled that there can be a fair trial because of the extensive documents which survive.

It is disturbing that our government has tried to have these cases struck out because of technical arguments. Indeed Desmond Tutu and others has written to our PM to make this point –

"Our fear is that the British government's repeated reliance on legal technicality in response to allegations of torture of the worst kind will undermine Britain's reputation and authority as a champion for human rights."

It may be that the guilty individuals cannot now be brought to account, but the surviving victims are still entitled to justice by way of an open apology and compensation. It is shameful that they have had to fight to get this far.

These cases confirm again that if people fight for justice it can ultimately be achieved even if the wheels often grind slowly.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

On Virgin Rail, Justice and the real value of £40m!

I have to travel by rail from Liverpool to London a few times a year. The service has improved massively over the last few years. At its worst the journey took over three hours. It now takes just under two. The trains operated by Virgin are efficient and comfortable and I have had very little reason to complain.

So it was alarming to hear the news that virgin had lost the contract for the North West Line to First Group. Now we are told that there were serious flaws in the tender process and that the whole thing is back to square one. The error was entirely the fault of the Ministry of Transport and compensation due to the shortlisted companies is going to be in the region of £40m.

It is that figure of £40m which concerns me.

When we hear news of government spending the aounts involved are so far beyond our experience that they don’t mean a lot. But they do make an impact when compared with something else.

I have gone on and on about the unfairness of cuts to the Legal Aid budget and the devastating effect this will have on Access to Justice. It is not just lawyers who have been opposing the cuts. Many voluntary agencies that provide advice to the most vulnerable are seeing their funding slashed and many will be unable to continue.

In order to try and meet the objections the government announced in the last budget that funds would be available to the voluntary sector. How much? Yes you guessed it. £40m is to be made available and over two years.

So the amount that has been thrown away by the major cock up over one rail franchise is equivalent to the entire amount being allocated to the sector that provides legal advice to those in greatest need - for tweo years! So we are left with two possible conclusions. Either £40m isn’t that much so the amount allocated to not for profit agencies is an insult. Or it is a lot of money and the franchise debacle is scandalous. In fact it is a combination of the two.

I am walking around Liverpool tonight to raise money for the North West Legal Support Trust which aids the provision of free legal advice. Hopefully we will raise a few thousand pounds.

If our leaders got their act together and reviewed their priorities as this could see a massive change for the better.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Legal Services - an ongoing SAGA

The Legal Services Act 2007 introduced the world to the idea of an Alternative Business Structure (ABS). This is of great interest to lawyers but probably means very little to everyone else. But in fact it completely changed the way we go about getting legal advice and representation.

For most of my years in the profession solicitors were allowed to work in partnership with other solicitors. But they were barred from sharing fees with any non lawyers. Barristers were instructed by solicitors and had no direct contact with the public. All this is changing at a bewildering pace. It is now possible for non lawyers to become licensed as legal businesses and this is becoming an attractive proposition.

I have previously mentioned to Eddie Stobart Barrister initiative –

We are seeing other familiar brands moving into legal services by the day. The Co-Operative has been at the head of the queue. Today we have the news that the AA are applying to become an ABS. They have been handling injury claims via law firms for some time and are now planning an expansion into more general legal work. At the same time SAGA, who specialise in the over 50s, are offering legal services. They are offering wills and probate and fixed price conveyancing –

Interestingly one of the most high profile high street brands TESCO has not shown its hand although the whole idea has become known as TESCO Law!

So is this the end of the law firm as we know it? Absolutely not. From my experience clients are interested in getting a professional service from lawyers who that they can trust. There is no guarantee that business will be transferred to SAGA or the Co-Op just because they are a more famous name – and a name associated with another product.

What it does mean is the law firms can not be complacent. They can and will compete with the well known brands but will have to ensure that what they offer is of high quality and reasonable cost. Lawyers will also have to modernise how they do business and how they communicate.

We are in interesting times!

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Motor Claims - who's making and who's paying?

One of my regular themes this year has been the complaints by and on behalf of the motor insurance industry that there are too many accidents and that this is putting up the cost of our insurance premiums. They regularly blame victims for pursuing claims against offending drivers saying that it is their fault. They would have us believe that if we could be stopped from claiming damages then our insurance would go down.

This ignores the conduct of insurers themselves and the role they have played in inflating the cost of claims. The industry has now been referred to the Competition Commission by the OFT. This is due to their practice of controlling repair and hire charges, thus increasing the cost. It is estimated that this could be adding up to £225m a year to the cost of insurance -

According to the BBC, car hire was on average £560 more expensive each time than it needed to be. Each repair was on average £155 more expensive.

Many insurers receive referral fees from hirers and repairers.

It is fair to say that tough action is needed in relation to motors claims. But the media loves to criticise the victims for seeking damages when they are least to blame. There are plans to restrict the right to pursue claims because of a mythical compensation culture. It is really the insurance companies themselves who are making huge profits on the back of claims and then charging high premiums into the bargain.

I would challenge them to guarantee a rebate on premiums if the proposed cuts reduce the number of claims.

I would also support a ban on the sending of text messages and emails to encourage claims. I get about one text a week telling me to bring a claim. Some even me tell how much I will get for an injury that never happened!