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Monday, 23 December 2013

Merry Christmas and the back of 2013!!




I have to confess to being an instinctive optimist. The glass tends to be half full. A lifetime as an Everton fan has occasionally led to blind, irrational optimism – but not this season! 

But even I have struggled to find positives from the year gone by.

Here are just some of the changes that we have seen –

  1. Removal of the right of accident victims to recover success fees from Defendants meaning that they will see a reduction of up to 25% in their damages,
  2. Drastic reductions in recoverable legal costs making it uneconomical to take on certain cases without reducing quality,
  3. Abolition of legal aid for huge areas of work creating an access to justice  waste land - http://thestevecornforthblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/access-to-justice-waste-land.html
  4. Eye watering cuts to the fees payable to criminal lawyers who are already amongst the lowest paid in the profession - http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice/criminal-bar-names-6-january-as-strike-day/5039058.article
  5. The introduction of fees in Employment Tribunals resulting in a 50% reduction in cases - http://www.theguardian.com/money/2013/dec/23/employment-tribunal-claims-introduction-fees
  6. The chilling decision in Mitchell v NGN which will see hundreds of claims struck out and an unmanageable drain of Professional Indemnity Insurance.

The world we can look forward to in 2014 will be very different from anything we have known before.

The only real comfort is that there is not much more that can be thrown at the profession. It is a bit like the scene at the end of Rocky where he is up against the ropes and having the living daylights beaten out of him. Not only does he survive but gets through four more movies!

The worst has been thrown at us and some, in fact most, of us are still here. It may be hard but those lawyers who are imaginative and robust will survive and even thrive again in time.

In the meantime let’s all enjoy Christmas. I’m looking forward to nice books/DVDs –

Fifty Shades of Grayling
LASPO Go Home (DVD)
The Empire Strikes Out
Tender Mercies
E-QWOCS The Movie

Have a great Christmas and New Year

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Litigation - a trivial pursuit?



It is less than a month since the Court of Appeal decision in the Mitchell case changed, forever, the way civil litigation is pursued on this country.

This is the case where the Solicitors acting for Andrew Mitchell MP effectively lost any right to recover fees for the work done by them in connection with his defamation claim against The Sun. This was because they filed a budget at court 6 days late. The fees are likely to exceed £500k. It remains to be seen whether they will stay in business.


The upshot of the appeal is that any missed deadline is likely to lead to severe sanctions. 

It used to be that a delay of a day or two would be permitted because we live and work in a real world where these things happen. Not anymore. The Court of Appeal did say that ‘trivial’ breaches might be forgiven but did not give any helpful definition.

Since that decision lawyers have been assessing the likely damage. One case has already come before the court and it is fair to say that the situation is bleak as we have predicted.

Romano v k Papers (Blackburn) Ltd was a routine claim for noise induced hearing loss at work. The court had ‘stayed’ the court action until February 2013 to enable the parties to try and agree settlement. Sadly the claimant’s Solicitors went out of business. New Solicitors acting for their administrators asked the court for more time. They were granted and extension to 17th June 2013 but the order stated that after that date the claim would be struck out. The new solicitor reviewed the file on 18th June and noticed to his horror that the date had passed. He immediately applied to have the case reinstated. Surely in all the circumstances a delay of just one day was ‘trivial’. Sadly not.

The case came before HHJ Gore who upheld the decision to strike out the claim in its entirety. The delay of just one day was not trivial. Who was prejudiced? The court administration, which had to find space in the diary for the hearing. The judge also dismissed submissions that the claimant was deprived of a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human rights. The reason given was that the claimant could sue his lawyers.


So this is the new world in which we now find ourselves. A minor error can now have massive consequences which are totally disproportionate. The whole idea of a civil justice system is surely to resolve disputes in a way that is fair and ‘just’. Now it has to be one which does not inconvenience the court’s diary managers. The most chilling statement is the one that dismisses complaints of injustice by redirecting the claim to the lawyers. Most victims, especially in the more serious cases, want something more than just money. They want the person responsible to be held to account, they want answers to questions.  In short they want ‘justice’.

Solicitors firms have recently been through their insurance renewal process. This has been one of the toughest in history and a significant number of firms face closure because they either, could not get insurance, or could not afford massively increased premiums. I predict that many more will struggle next time around if the most trivial of diary mistakes or oversights put further pressure on the insurance market.

Very few of our senior judges have ever had to face any of these stark realities.

So we could end up with the terrifying scenario of firms going out of business and staff losing jobs due to the tiniest of errors.

Lawyers can no longer afford to be human.


Monday, 9 December 2013

Administration trumps justice



Well we are at that time of year when we look back over the past year and predict what might await us in the year ahead. For many lawyers 2013 has been a year to forget. We have seen the removal of legal aid for most civil proceedings, the battering of criminal legal aid practitioners, swathing cuts in the amounts recoverable by victims of accidents to name just a few.

So the sooner we leave this year behind the better. But what might 2014 bring? Here are just some thoughts.

I certainly predict that the civil courts are going to have a busy time. This is despite all of the efforts of the government and their friends in the insurance industry to deter claimants. This will partly be driven by the recent Mitchell case that I mentioned a week or so ago –


The clear message of that case is that we have moved from the administration of justice to the justice of administration. Justice will no longer rule the day. Filing documents on time now trumps everything. The most marginal of diary errors can lead to legal claims against solicitors. This is at a time when the indemnity insurance market is tougher than it has ever been. Who knows who will get insurance next time around. Firms will be totally focussed on avoiding these issues and it is likely that the courts will be overwhelmed with applications for extensions of time in anticipation of any possible delay. Dealing with these administrative applications will take up huge amounts of court time that would be better spent dispensing justice.

But we will also see a big increase in the number of trials in Personal Injury Cases. For cases after April 2013 we have a costs regime known as Qualified One Way Costs Shifting (QOCS). This follows the abolition of the right of claimants to recover the premiums taken out to protect themselves against the payment of legal costs to other side if their case fails. The Ministry of Justice has dealt with this by removing the winning party’s right to recover legal costs of they win. This will have a double effect on the way litigation is pursued. Firstly, the drastic cuts in recoverable legal costs have been a deterrent to out of court settlement in any event. But QOCS means that far more cases will go to trial. If a claimant does face any significant risk of adverse costs if they lose then they might as well carry on as far as they can.

At present, a claimant has to pay a Hearing Fee of just over £1000.00 as a case approaches trial. This is repayable if the case settles. In a consultation document published last week the government propose abolition of that repayment which is another disincentive to settle before trial.


Trials in civil cases have become the exception over the last 10 years or so. That will certainly change as these reforms take full effect.

The overall effect of these ‘reforms’ is likely to be a big increase in the cost of litigation. The intention was supposed to be the opposite. But as litigants are forced through more and more hoops to secure justice the cost is likely to go through the roof.

Last week’s consultation says that the civil courts’ system costs the tax payer about £100m a year. That is about £1.50 per head of population of the UK. Most people I know are prepared to pay a fair price for a fair system.



Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Keeping Tweeters out of trouble



I have gone on and on about the legal dangers faced by all of us who use Social Media. 

How many stories have we read about those who have tweeted without thinking and landed themselves in hot water?

Most recently there has been the conviction of Emma Way. She hit a cyclist with her wing mirror knocking him into a hedge and causing minor injuries. It was a fairly routine accident which would normally have passed us by. But she then told the world on Twitter;

"Definitely knocked a cyclist off his bike earlier. I have right of way - he doesn't even pay road tax! #Bloodycyclists."

She was prosecuted for failing to stop after and accident and for failure to report it. It is no great surprise that she was convicted and fined. But for the tweet the cuclist would probably, not have taken it any further –


This was real case of tweeting without due care and attention –


Even more serious problems have arisen when comments on court cases have endangered the chances of a fair trial. I blogged back in August about the two jurors who were imprisoned for posting comments about ongoing trials –


This has led the Attorney General to publish warnings about the consequences of posts that might prejudice a fair trial. Such guidance is already provided to the mainstream media. Such is the power of social media that the same information will be provided on twitter. He has acknowledged the growing influence of Facebook and Twitter - "Blogs and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook mean individuals can now reach thousands of people with a single tweet or post," He also explained that the intention was enable posted to comment without getting themselves into trouble - "I hope that by making this information available to the public at large, we can help stop people from inadvertently breaking the law, and make sure that cases are tried on the evidence, not what people have found online.”

 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-war-on-twitter-social-media-sites-threaten-justice-system-warns-attorney-general-8981287.html

The warnings will appear on Twitter at @AGO_UK. It might be a good idea for all regular tweeters to follow that particular site. What this means is that we all have the capability to comment on local and world events and to reach thousands within a few minutes. This is clearly good for democracy.

But it also means we have a responsibility – to others and to ourselves. It we can only grasp the power we hold in our hands then we will remind ourselves to think before we tweet!!







Friday, 29 November 2013

Road to Singapore - don't be late!!





We are all now familiar with the infamous plebgate incident concerning the former Minister Andrew Mitchell. That is story which is very well covered elsewhere. But there has been a sub-plot to all this which has caused most litigation lawyers sleepless nights.

Mr. Mitchell sued the Sun Newspaper for libel. That was always going to be a high profile and expensive case. In matters like this is necessary for lawyers to file costs budgets at court. The idea is to control the level of costs. The court ordered the parties to attend a preliminary hearing on 10th June 2013, later changed to 18th June, due to an error by the court. In preparation for this the lawyers for both sides were to file draft budgets 7 days in advance.

Mr. Mitchell’s lawyers failed to do this on time. They filed their budget the day before the hearing. The cost of that delay has been catastrophic. If Mr. Mitchell wins his case he will recover no legal costs at all apart from court fees. Those costs are estimated to exceed £500k. In reality his lawyers will simply not get paid. In the case of a small firm this would probably lead to closure and job losses. 

The lawyers asked the judge to allow ‘relief from sanctions’ under the court rules and were refused. This week the Court of Appeal upheld that decision.


This is part of a new and tough regime imported from Singapore which dramatically restricts the court’s powers to exercise discretion in the face of delay. It is all part of a drive to save money in relation to the administration of civil justice. It seems that Lord Justice Jackson, whose report has driven most of the recent ‘reforms’ visited Singapore and was impressed by their zero tolerance approach to deadlines.

Nobody would argue that lawyers should disregard deadline set by the courts. But until this year was always some acknowledgement that nobody is perfect i.e. that there can be slippage or even human error, as there was by the court itself in this case. So if a claim was struck out because a document was lodged a few days late the claim could be reinstated and the lawyers penalised by having to pay any costs incurred in sorting out their breach. That actually worked quite well despite rhetoric to the contrary.

We now have a situation where citizens will be deprived of justice due to administrative failings which are quite capable of correction. Alarmingly the Court of appeal appear to acknowledge this. Lord Justice Dyson said –  

There now has to be a shift away from exclusively focussing on doing justice in the individual case”. 

If that is the case then let’s stop calling it a justice system?

There will be some exceptions for ‘trivial’ breaches or in the case of illness or accident! But there is no exception for simple human error. I have been practising law for over 30 years and would never dream of claiming perfection! I do have an efficient system for logging dates but if I mistakenly record a date as 02/03/14 instead of 03/02/14 it could have disastrous consequences.


I predict two possible consequences. Firstly there will be a deluge of claims against lawyers by claimants who lose their claims for administrative reasons. Secondly the courts will be overrun with applications by lawyers applying for extensions of time because they are terrified of the commercial consequences.

Going back to the Mitchell case, the lawyers were clearly at fault. They should have lodged their budget in time. But a business could close here with inevitable job losses. Is that a proportionate sanction? There was no prejudice at all to the Sun who have a windfall of unimaginable levels. The only prejudice was to the court’s administrators who had to find some additional diary time.


We should have a justice system based on justice and not the convenience of court administrators. At this rate I can see litigators packing up shop and heading out of the country – but not to Singapore!



Monday, 25 November 2013

Accident claims - you can lower the cost but you can't lower the bar



A recent decision in Leeds County Court has caused alarm among some Personal Injury Lawyers.

Yorkshire firm, Raleys were sued by a former client for Professional Negligence. He alleged that they had under settled his claim for work related Vibration White Finger. They had recovered damages for pain and suffering and loss of earnings. But they had failed to recover anything for what is known as, loss of services. This included that need for assistance with gardening, DIY etc.


It appears that there were no meetings between solicitor and client. It was all done by way of forms and standard letters. Unfortunately the prospect of a services claim slipped through the net. The lawyers were at fault because they had not met the client and explained what he could and could not claim.

There is no doubt that this is the right decision. If solicitors take on the responsibility recovering damages for a client, and something is missed, then it is their fault. They cannot excuse themselves by saying that it was all done by post (or email) and the client never mentioned it.

But, following developments over the last year, it is still a worry. The government have slashed the levels of legal costs that victims can recover in successful cases.


The profession has been told that this is straightforward work that does not require high level expertise. We have been told that the way forward is to commoditise the work, so we end up with troops of unqualified clerks who simply input data onto computers. In this way we can all earn a reasonable living. It is in effect an official dumbing down of the work. It all sounds very sensible, apart from one problem. To quote that guru of jurisprudence, Blackadder – ‘It’s b*ll*cks’.

The level of expertise might reduce but the standards stay the same. And rightly so. I can’t invite the public to instruct my firm and then, if something is missed, say ‘Sorry but the person dealing with your case has only just done their GCSEs’.  

You can lower the cost but you can’t lower the bar.

I suspect that we will see more claims of this kind. That in turn could have a knock on effect when firms look to renew their indemnity insurance next year. Others might simply say enough is enough, and leave the sector altogether.

This was predicted by many, but it all fell on stony ground.

What we really need is a system where the party at fault pays whatever it costs the victim to pursue the case.

But I am not holding my breath!




Thursday, 21 November 2013

Cuts at the Co-Op - is big as beautiful as we are told??



It has not been the best of weeks for the Co-Op.

Every day we have seen more damning news about Paul Flowers, the former chairman of the bank and Methodist Minister. I don’t propose to dwell on that matter which is getting plenty of coverage elsewhere.

On the back of all this comes the news, this week, that Co-Operative Legal Services are to cut 60 jobs their Personal injury division. In fact it is a 50% reduction is size. According to the report in the Law Society’s Gazette the cuts are the result of losing a ‘large source of personal injury work’ with ‘not enough new claims coming in’.


The Legal Services Act 2007 heralded the birth of ABSs. For the first time, legal services could be provided by non-lawyer organizations. Interestingly we all referred to TescoLaw even though that particular retailer has yet to show any significant interest. But the Co-Op has gone for it in a big way. They were among the first to be granted an ABS licence by the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority.

The first thing that this demonstrates is that no organization is immune from the commercial pressures affecting anybody who deals with personal injury work. We have seen a number of high profile firms either closed the door or decide to wind down their businesses. Companies like webuyanyclaim.com are busily buying up work from those who no longer see the work as viable following the dramatic changes that have been a big feature of this blog –


So to that extent, we are all in it together.

But it also raises a question over the mantra that ‘big is beautiful’. We have been told time and time again that it is only big and powerful entitles that will survive the recent changes. It is being predicted that in ten years time there will only be 5 or 6 companies dealing with personal injury. But you begin to wonder..

We have recently seen the demise of some big firms including Halliwells and Cobbett’s. Now we see the most enthusiastic retailer in the sector cutting back by 50%.

In truth the consumers don’t seem to want to be represented by a faceless corporation. They want a lawyer they know and can trust.

I have no doubt that the Co-Op will come through all this and remain big players in the legal market. But hose who talk of the demise of the private law firm are being premature. There will still be a demand for those who offer a high quality and personal service to their clients.





Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Divided we fall!!



I suspect that there have been sighs of relief at the Ministry of Justice as solicitors have gone to war with each other over the handling of the government’s proposed cuts to criminal legal aid.

This is an issue which has been simmering for months. We know that this government has no love for funding access to justice for those who cannot afford to pay for it. Criminal lawyers have had it worse than anybody else. They have been threatened with competitive tendering on price, removal of a client’s choice of lawyer and the inevitable attack on their fees. It should never be forgotten that these lawyers work long, anti social hours for little reward. It is work for the committed.


The Law Society’s response has been to negotiate with the MOJ. They have maintained a firm opposition to the cuts but maintain that dialogue is the only realistic way to achieve concessions to the proposed changes. A group of solicitors who feel that the Society has not gone far enough have submitted a motion of no confidence in the Society’s President, Nick Fluck and its CEO Des Hudson. The motion will be considered on 17th December. Under the Law Society’s constitution it has to be a personal vote. If passed then there will be a postal ballot of the whole membership. 

The Law Society has called a meeting of its council for the same day. Supporters of the motion have accused the Law Society of doing this to ensure a strong turn out of supporters. The Society says it had to call the meeting on that day in order to respond to the outcome of the motion. And so the rhetoric goes on.

In the meantime the heat is well and truly off as far as ministers are concerned.

I am not a criminal lawyer and would be first in the queue to support them. They work incredibly hard for little reward. I would not presume to have an opinion on whether the Law Society has done enough. It is simply not a subject on which I know enough to express a view.

What I would say is that division will achieve nothing. Will the government take any more notice of the profession which is at war with itself? We know that the Ministry of Justice takes little notice of arguments against its cuts. Maybe those supporting the motion are expecting too much. Maybe there is more the Society could do. But they need to thrash these issues out and reach a united position at all costs. 

Because the status quo is going to achieve nothing apart from some bad press about lawyers bickering among themselves.




Friday, 15 November 2013

Plugging the Justice Gap - A rant!!



This has been a tough year for the legal profession, especially those who provide services for ordinary people.

Legal aid has been virtually wiped out. In that small number of cases where it remains available, the fees have been reduced to such levels as to make it prohibitive as a commercial option. Criminal Practitioners in particular have had to face the spectre of competitive tendering and the possibility of losing work to major corporate providers –


These are some of the most hardworking and dedicated lawyers.

Those who do Personal injury work have seen their fees slashed to a level that has seen many firms decide to close the door –


This has been largely driven by the insurance industry on the back of a fantasy known as the compensation culture. As the dust settles on all of this, firms are now having to take stock and plan their futures in this very different world. One recent report has found that one third of small to medium sized firms expect that they will need to merge or be taken over in order to continue –


This is all familiar news especially to anybody who has followed this blog for the last few months. And it is all a bit bleak for law firms and those who need legal advice but lack the means to pay for it.

But one recent proposal just adds insult to injury. It is being suggested that the gaps in access to justice can be filled by making it mandatory for lawyers to work for nothing. So lawyers would not be permitted to practice unless they carried out a set number of hours of free work. Another proposal is it to make it a compulsory element of legal training so a student cannot qualify unless he/she does so many hours of free work.


How far are we expected to go?

Most lawyers already do huge amounts of free work. According to the Law Society Gazette, 44% of solicitors did free work in the last year. I imagine that that understates the reality. At the same time as a record number of firms are closing, they could be forced to plug the gap in legal services by working for nothing. Get real.

If the government acknowledge that there is unmet legal need then they should deal with this by way of a properly funded legal aid scheme. The stock answer to this is that cuts have to be made. Of course they do. But the money is found to pay for a top class court building for big businesses –



It is really a matter of priority.

Lawyers who want to act for the less well off are told to do it at rock bottom rates or better still, for nothing.


Friday, 1 November 2013

Law - only a career option for the privileged?



I posted a blog last year raising concerns about the shrinking access to careers in the law. 

I questioned whether the law was becoming a career for the rich –


This followed a decision by the Solicitors Regulation Authority to abolish the minimum salary for Trainee Solicitors. These concerns have been echoed this week by Baroness Hale who is the Deputy President of the Supreme Court and the most senior woman judge that we have ever had. She was speaking at the launch of report by the Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) which calls for return of the minimum salary.

Lady Hale expressed gave concern about the disparity between the number of students being trained in the law and the number of jobs available. She actually said that many aspire to a legal career that they can never have –


She went on to say that it was a major worry that we could be returning the days when “social advantage, independent schooling and Oxbridge”, determined access to a legal career.

It is certainly true that there are far too many students being trained than there are training contracts available. Those institutions who a charging huge fees need to ask themselves some difficult questions. Baroness Hale agrees that we cannot block access to that opportunity. But there are many disincentives. Why would the brightest students want to run up thousands of pounds in loans with little prospect of a career at the end?

The abolition of the minimum salary is just one such obstacle but it is significant. Why struggle through years of academic training to end up being paid buttons. In their report, published this week, YLAL acknowledge that most who work in the legal aid sector do not expect huge salaries but –

“The combination of prohibitively expensive professional courses, high levels of debt and low salaries makes it extremely difficult for those from a lower socio-economic background to enter the legal aid profession and then to sustain a career in the sector”.

They also express concern about the impact on social mobility caused by the requirement for most students to carry out unpaid work experience.


This should be a real concern for us all. We need a diverse legal profession. Legal problems affect the whole population and those who represent them should not come from a small social group who can afford to pay the fees, do the unpaid work and earn low salaries whilst training. In the current climate, it is highly unlikely that I would ever have been able to qualify.

We should be doing all we can to encourage entry for all based on ability and not on wealth. A starting point will be return to a realistic salary for trainees. It would be a great step forward if the government provided funding for work experience in the legal aid sector although this is highly unlikely with the present government.



Friday, 11 October 2013

Bereavement Damages - is there a greater injustice?



There are many injustices in our system. 

But there is one which has been a consistent presence throughout my life as a lawyer; damages for the bereaved.

There can be little that comes near the suffering of those who lose a loved one in an accident or due to medical negligence. And yet the way the law treats these victims has never been far short of scandalous. Admittedly it was once far worse. I remember a time when there was no entitlement at all to bereavement damages. The right was created by statute in 1982 so that from 1st January 1983 it was possible to recover the nominal sum of £2500.00.

The figure has crept up over the last 30 years or so and is now at £12,980.00. Many would say that this bears no relation to the actual level of suffering. To set this in context you would expect damages at that level if you suffered moderate post traumatic stress disorder which was largely recovered with any lingering effects not grossly disabling. Most people never recover from the effects of a tragic or sudden bereavement. 

The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) has recently published results of a survey which suggests that a majority would support a huge increase in the amount recoverable – even as high as £100k –


Surely the time has now come for a root and branch re-assessment of the damages to be paid to victims.


But the injustice does not stop there. What is worse is the very restricted group of people who can be ‘bereaved’. The entitlement to this compensation was created by an Act of Parliament under which only the surviving spouse (or civil partner) or the parent of a child under 18 can recover.

I once advised the parents of a student who had been killed in a car accident just days after his 18th birthday. How do you tell them that their bereavement does not count? What made their bereavement any less painful? Children who lose a parent get nothing at all.

I anticipate that the insurance industry would be less than enthusiastic about any change. But this has been a running sore for too long.

It is about time that politicians grasped the nettle and brought about a fair and realistuic change – once and for all.




Monday, 7 October 2013

News of the death of Law Firms - greatly exaggerated



For most law firms, September is not an easy month. This is because of the annual renewal of Professional Indemnity Insurance.

Any firm of Solicitors wanting to practice in the UK has to have insurance against negligence claims. There is a compulsory layer of cover at £2m per case (£3m in the case of Limited Liability Partnerships). This means that obtaining insurance is one of the highest overheads alongside salaries and premises. September is stressful because until this year, all renewals had to be done by 1st October.Thankfully that has now changed.

So if you saw stressed lawyer in the last few weeks this could be one of a number of reasons!

This year has been a bumpy renewal for many. Two unrated insurers were forced to pull out of the market quite late on; which added to the stampede. In addition insurers were said to be nervous because of the record number of firms who were in ‘financial difficulties’. A few weeks ago it was being predicted that hundreds of firms could end up without insurance by the dreaded cut off date. The effects of that are dire. A firm is allowed a further 30 days to find insurance. If they don’t succeed then they cannot take on further work and have a further 60 days to close the door.
 
As it happens, the apocalypse did not materialise. According to the Law society’s Gazette just 69 firms failed to get insured by the deadline. That is just 0.65% of the 10500 firms around. Hardly a meltdown.


This has been a very challenging year for law firms with drastic cuts in fees, abolition of legal aid for most areas of work and the arrival of competition from new business structures. But it appears that firms are more robust than experts think. 

There have been unfortunate closures and some familiar names have sadly disappeared. But we haven’t seen small to medium practices being wiped out. Firms have had to re-evaluate how they work and embrace new systems and technology. Many have seen the advantage of joining up with others. Some firms who cannot accept change will sadly fall by the way.

But the news of the death of law firms has, to date, been greatly exaggerated.






Thursday, 3 October 2013

Law Centre success for Bedroom Tax victims



Congratulations to Govan Law Centre in Glasgow who have successfully argued before a Tribunal in Scotland that the decision to reduce the housing Benefit of a severely disabled woman, breached her Human Rights.

The unnamed woman and her husband had their rent assistance reduced by 14% because they had too many rooms under the new rules that were introduced earlier this year. She needed a separate bedroom because of her disability. She needs a tracking hoist and the use of a hospital bed which makes it effectively impossible to share the room with her husband.

As result of the penalties that were imposed they went into rent arrears for 3 months.

The judge took the logical view that –

"As a result of her severe disability and the aids and adaptations she requires, the appellant cannot share a bedroom with her husband,"

This breached her human rights and also amounted to discrimination.


Hopefully this argument will now be used to assist other disabled people affected by this tax. Under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. The intention of the bedroom tax is to force tenants to move into smaller accommodation which might be entirely inappropriate.


It is also quite clearly discriminatory as the only reason she needs the extra space is that she is disabled.

It remains to be seen whether the DWP will appeal.

A disabled person, and their carers, have enough on their plates without having to worry about losing their home. By any logic this is a tax on disability. It is only First Tier Tribunal Decision so does not create a precedent that others must follow. But it is a step in the right direction.

Of course what we really need is the abolition of this tax with is oppressive and does not acually work -

 


The case also highlights the importance of the work of Law Centres. I have mentioned recently that many are under threat following recent legal aid cuts –

The work that they do is essential in protecting the rights of ordinary people. They should be thanked and supported by anybody who is concerned about access to justice.



Thursday, 26 September 2013

What's in a name?




I have often talked about the need for law firm’s to modernise and to communicate with the public at a level that they understand and to which they can relate. 

This certainly includes the need to embrace modern technology and especially social media.

But what about names? Does the name of a law firm make any difference to their perception by the public?

Now I remember the days when the name of a firm had to include that of at least one partner. So in Liverpool there were firms with wonderfully memorable names like Shufflebottom Webster and Shields and Ernest B Kendall and Rigby. Nottingham boasted the, never to be forgotten, Rupert Bear and Co. 

American firms stick to the formal names model. The longest name that I am aware of over there is  Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca, Fischer, Gilbert-Lurie, Stiffelman, Cook, Johnson, Lande & Wolf which is a mouthful by anyone’s standards!

But that rule has long since gone so that firms can call themselves what they want, within reason and respectability. Today we read that Merseyside firm CAMPS is rebranding under the name Your Legal Friend. The idea of that name, presumably, is to show the public that they are on their side. I have to say that I am not convinced. Don’t people have legal friends in pubs who give them advice on all sorts of matters? Or aren’t they the ones who get phone calls from a friend of a friend late at night asking for free advice on some obscure legal point. Time will tell.

Others have gone for imaginative titles such as Brilliant Law and Citadel Law, both of which I really like. They seem to communicate something about the quality of the work.

But does it actually matter? Will clients instruct lawyers based on a catchy name or brand? Some of the world’s leading firms have stuck with traditional titles such as Clifford Chance or Freshfields. I cannot imagine Hill Dickinson ever rebranding as ShipsRUs.

Law Firms do have to be aware of modern trends and to be commercially competitive. My LinkedIn Profile tells me that I am technically connected to 12m people which is the population of Gautemala! Should I relocate? But ultimately I suspect that most clients are more interested in the quality of the work and especially the cost. I may be wrong and would love to hear any views to the contrary.

In the meantime we are sticking to EAD Solicitors LLP which is not a catchy as some but says who we are!

Thursday, 19 September 2013

There is still some Legal Aid around - ssshh don't tell anyone.



I have talked before about the legal advice waste land following the massive cuts to Legal Aid which were introduced in April this year.

Since then we have seen the closure of Birmingham Law Centre which provided essential legal help for those in greatest need. And they are not alone.

An article in the Guardian this week makes bleak reading.

Other centres are making cuts or having to turn clients away. Others are left with no choice but to introduce charges to clients who are often on subsistence levels of income.


It is hard to imagine a more demoralising situation. Most lawyers and advice workers, who go into this sector, do so because they want to fight for the rights of the poor and vulnerable. There can be nothing worse than having to turn people away because of limited resources.

Some clients are still entitled to legal aid, including those at risk of losing their homes. But the Legal Action Group (LAG) reports an alarming drop in the number of applications in these cases. This is blamed on a failure by the government to market the services or even to make the public aware. Many believe that there is no legal aid at all any more and little or nothing is done to address that misconception.

They have published a damning report which talks about Legal aid as a secret service –


The report says – ‘The fear is if nothing is done to increase the take-up of civil legal aid, the remaining services will wither away as the lack of use will be used to justify their loss.’

One thing we can all do is make the public aware that there are still streams in the desert!

The Legal profession is doing its bit. There are still may case which are run at no charge. Lawyers in Liverpool are walking around the city this evening to raise funds for the North West Legal Support Trust which assists voluntary agencies.






But it is really a matter for the politicians to see Access to Justice as a right to be enjoyed by all and not just those with the money to pay for it.




Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Hammered by Brazil - Bedroom Tax gets what it deserves!



Taking a hammering from Brazil is something with which we in the UK, especially England, should be familiar. 

But we would not normally expect this to come in relation to a controversial Government policy.

THE UN Special Rapporter on Housing, Racquel Rolnik has laid into the Government in relation to Housing generally and in particular the Bedroom Tax; something which I have discussed more than once –


Following a recent visit she has commented on her surprise at the misery caused by the tax which targets –

"the most vulnerable, the most fragile, the people who are on the fringes of coping with everyday life".

She called for its immediate abolition.


Many of us have been sating the same for months.
 
Not surprisingly the government have not taken this well. Conservative Party Chairman and former Housing Minister has called her the 'woman from Brazil' and has referred to that country’s housing shortage – as if that has any bearing on the rights or wrongs of the Bedroom Tax. One Tory MP has actually called her a ‘Loopy Brazilian Lefty.’ That’s the second time this week that critics of government policies have been called lefties.


But the problem is, she is right. It is nothing less than a scandal that vulnerable tenants, including those who are disabled live in fear of eviction because of a policy that is fundamentally misconceived. It doesn’t matter whether you are left, right or centre; if there isn’t enough smaller housing then the policy is wrong.

So well done Ms Rolnik for speaking out.