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Wednesday, 31 July 2013

MPs Whiplash Report supports victims - is the wind changing??

Today has seen the publication of the much awaited report from the House of Commons Transport Select committee on whiplash injury claims. 

Victims who suffer whiplash type injuries in motor accidents have been on the receiving end of some of the most vitriolic rhetoric from insurers, ministers and the media. They have been made to feel personally responsible for the eye-watering insurance premiums.

These attacks have been previously been criticised by the Civil Justice Council –

The Select Committee report has come down firmly on the side of the victims –

One extremely worrying proposal was to raise the small claims limit to £5000.00. This was designed to make it impossible for most whiplash claimants to get independent legal advice as they would be barred from recovering the costs of doing so. The committee has firmly rejected this. 

‘We believe that access to justice is likely to be impaired, particularly for people who do not feel confident to represent themselves in what will seem to some to be a complex and intimidating process.
‘Insurers will use legal professionals to contest claims, which will add to this problem.
‘It would be financially difficult for many solicitors to assist litigants fighting personal injury claims using the small-claims procedure, given the limited fees available. However, we are concerned that some claims management firms might find a way to enter the process, fueling another boom in their activities.’

Despite claims about a so called compensation culture the report found that there has in fact been a significant reduction in the number of claims over recent years. In response to government claims about the number of fraudulent claims the committee expressed surprise that ministers were proposing steps to reduce the number of fraudulent claims – ‘without giving even an estimate of the comparative scale of the problem.’ Many of us have been saying for months that this problem was overstated.

It is also telling that the committee criticises the government for meeting with insurers and excluding concerned members of the legal profession –

‘We were disappointed to hear from witnesses from the legal profession that they had not been invited to the Prime Minister's summit and nor are we aware of any substantive contact with DfT ministers. This is particularly surprising given that legal reforms were clearly under discussion.’

The report is available here –

It remains to be seen whether the Ministry of Justice will take any notice. But this is a very influential, all party committee which has looked at evidence for all sides of the debate.

It is certainly encouraging news for victims.

Is it a turning of the tide? Only time will tell

Friday, 26 July 2013

Law Society v ABI Turning up the heat!!

The spat between the Law Society and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) is hotting up by the day. 

This concerns that Society’ Advertising Campaign which encourages victims of accidents to consult a lawyer rather than be ‘mugged by an insurer’.

It is a light hearted but also hard hitting campaign which includes a picture of a victim who looks like he has been both in an accident and mugged!

The ABI hit back last week with typically aggressive rhetoric. They accused the Law Society of name calling whilst at the same time accusing lawyers of mugging the public. They allege that the statistics used by the Law Society are out of date.

Anyone who deals with these cases on a daily basis knows that this is nonsense.  A few weeks ago I blogged about a child with massive injuries in which insurers had to be dragged kicking and screaming to a court hearing before a fair result was achieved. That case was noteworthy because of the severity of the injuries but we all come across this day in and day out. Victims are entitled to independent professional advice. 

The ABI would like to engineer a world where victims just have to accept whatever they offer, whether it is fair or not.

So it is encouraging to hear that the Law Society is sticking to its guns. New President, Nick Fluck has said this week that he has no plans to abandon the campaign –

I do hope that the Law Society maintain this stance. Under the current government the ABI have been given pretty well everything they want. This is an important response on behalf of victims.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Bedroom Tax - the greatest injustice of them all?

“It is wrong to leave people out in the cold with effectively no roof over their heads because the taxpayer is paying for rooms which aren't in use. It’s just a common-sense reform, which in the end will help house more people.”

That is what the Conservative Party chairman Grant Schapps said about the dreadful bedroom tax which was introduced in April. The tax effectively fines people who are deemed to have too many bedrooms, by reducing their entitlement to Housing Benefit. Tenants can lose up to 25% of their rental support. Many of us feared that we would see spiraling debt and evictions. After 3 months those fears have been more than borne out.

It is those on lowest incomes who are most affected. This tax has added to the anxiety already felt by those facing the most wide sweeping benefit changes in history. The Samaritans are apparently offering training for housing association staff on suicide prevention.

This alone makes the tax indefensible. 

But there is no sign that it is coming anywhere near to achieving  its declared aims. According to the Government, the idea is to ‘help’ or rather force those on low income to move into smaller accommodation. But the whole concept misses one crucial point. There isn't enough smaller accommodation form them to move to.

One report from Bolton in Lancashire says that 11,000 tenants are waiting for just 91 one-bed roomed flats. The Town’s biggest Housing Association says that it would take it years to move everybody to accommodation deemed to be appropriate. In Liverpool, 14,000 households have fallen into arrears. For nearly half of them it was the first time they had found themselves behind in their rent. 26,500 Liverpool tenants are affected by the tax but only 155 have managed to downsize.

All of this makes the idea look even more like an attack on the poor by politicians who seemed to have overlooked the most obvious flaw – there isn't enough room! All they have done is put thousands into debt and worry.

So we will see tenant after tenant facing eviction for arrears. As I mentioned previously the situation has been aggravated further by the removal of legal aid which makes it impossible for the worst affected to get advice or representation.

This coalition has done many things wrong but there can few which have come close to the Bedroom Tax and the sooner it is abolished the better.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

What's that coming over the hill - is it a monster?

It has been fascinating to watch the rise of Eddie Stobart as a player in the Legal Services Market. I first mentioned this last year with the news that the company was using its direct access to Barristers as a way of offering similar access to clients using its brand and size to guarantee service levels and low cost. This led to the inevitable jokes about wig wearing truckers delivering briefs across the land and eating Yorkies!

I heard the company’s legal director Trevor Howarth last year and it soon became clear that this was genuine move into the marketplace and one to be taken very seriously.  

They were in the news again a few weeks ago when they declared an interest in bidding for a contract to carry out criminal legal aid work following proposals to sell that work off to the lowest bidder –

At that time I questioned whether they would be able to offer a service that could come anywhere that offered by law firms across the country.

Well we now have the news that the company has been granted and ABS licence by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). So effectively they can now operate as a full blown law firm and offer legal services across the board. ABSs were created by the Legal Services Act to bring about entities such as this – big, powerful players who have the strength and size to revolutionise legal services. Others are making similar plans.

Will these developments mean the inevitable demise of local, high street law firms offering a personal service to ordinary people? I don’t think that will happen. I believe that clients will still prefer to instruct their own lawyers. But anyone who ignores what is happening could well be doomed. Gone are the days when they could just rely on their professional status and qualifications. Clients want a high quality service at a fixed fee from providers who communicate in way that is clear and understandable. Those firms who embrace change will still have a role. Although the days of the ‘fat cat’ lawyers are probably numbered – no bad thing!

Have we created a monster here? No – but I do think the world is changing!

Monday, 15 July 2013

The Passing of another legend

On Friday I attended the funeral of another iconic Liverpool Lawyer.

Betty Behn died on 29th June aged 95. She qualified as a solicitor in 1941 and a year later became a Partner in the firm of John A Behn Twyford in Liverpool. In a legal world dominated by men she became a fearless advocate for workers who suffered injury during their employment. Most of her clients were referred by Trade Unions.

Although I had little opportunity to see her at her peak she was certainly a formidable lawyer. She reportedly ended an unsuccessful meeting with one insurance negotiator by saying, in his earshot – ‘He’ll be laughing on the other side of his face when he’s got a writ up his a*se’. It is fair to say that she became one of those legendary lawyers of that era who fought for the rights of ordinary people.

She retired as a partner in 1997 at the age of 80, but by all accounts this hardly slowed her down.

I had the privilege of attending a ceremony at her nursing home in 2010 when Liverpool Law Society presented her with a lifetime achievement award. She was only the second person to achieve that honour. 

Betty was a pioneer in so many ways. 

Firstly she not only survived but reached the top in a male world. Secondly she gained the respect and trust of workers and union leaders – another world where women were very much the minority. All of the major unions had somebody at her funeral. Thirdly she led the way in securing access to justice for those in need – how topical is that?

I don’t want to say that she was a one off. We have never been more in need of others like her!

John A Behn Twyford became part of EAD Solicitors in 2012.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Human Wrongs and Human Rights

The Government is getting itself in a state over Human Rights - again. 

This is nothing new. It doesn’t seem to matter which party is in power. Politicians do not like Human Rights to get in their way –

Two recent events have brought this subject back into the news. The first was the deportation of Abu Qatada to Jordan after years of legal wrangling. Home Secretary Teresa May complained that it had taken 12 years and £1.2m in legal costs to get what they wanted. This has again led to familiar rhetoric about the need to reconsider our whole relationship with Europe and even to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights altogether. Politicians seem to be comfortable in coming out with these statements despite the fact that the Convention was driven by the UK and largely drafted by UK lawyers –

But the problem with Abu Qatada was fairly straightforward. We could not deport somebody who might face trial based on evidence obtained by torture. We have to be consistent here. If we maintain that torture is never justified, then we cannot make an exception just because we do not like the potential victim. Abu Qatada did not go until after we were re-assured that there would be no reliance on evidence obtained by torture. So why did we not focus on that from the start?

Next we have had the decision from Strasbourg that whole life prison sentences breach Article 3 of the convention because they constitute punishment which is inhuman or degrading. Both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice have expressed their dismay. 

But again if we look closely at the decision it makes eminent sense. The court has not said that anybody should be released. What they have said is that is not acceptable that a prisoner should be deprived of ever having an opportunity to argue that they no longer present a danger to society. It is the loss of the right to be heard which is inhuman or degrading. Prisoners might still spend the rest of their days behind bars. The court has explained its decision as follows-

Prisoners must …have the possibility of arguing that at some point, after a lengthy period in prison, their detention is no longer necessary in the interests of punishment, deterrence and protection of the public and that their release would be justified on grounds of rehabilitation.’

The European Convention contains our basic human rights. I do wish that the government would stop coming out with statements which attack those rights just because particular decisions do not go their way. I notice that they never say which of my particular rights they plan to abolish..

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Lovely Lawyer - you're hired!!

I must confess to being addicted to The Apprentice. Everything else stops at 9.00pm on a Wednesday.

During last week’s programme Alex Mills was 'fired'. My eyebrows rose when he said that his business plan related to legal services. They could not, of course, have come anywhere near his eyebrows.

He has now taken the opportunity of going public with his initiative, on the back of the TV publicity. The business is Dynamo Legal and is in reality a panel of solicitors who are described in glowing terms on the website – ‘Gone are the confusing, expensive solicitors that only talk jargon and here is the easy, cost effective, lovely legal solicitor and insurance provider.’ 

Now I’m all for the legal profession smarting up its image but have never seen the word ‘lovely’ used in that context!

The business offers legal services through its panel and also insurance products.

According to a report in Legal futures they want to be a legal superbrand and have money to spend –

They offer to talk to people in clear language and at their level. Isn’t that something that all lawyers should do? So it is easy to be sniffy and to discount this as being just another gimmick. This was, after all, the guy who only a few weeks ago was designing a dating site with himself as the ultimate nightmare! 

But law firms will ignore this at their peril. We are talking here about a marketing budget of several million pounds and a business backed by someone who was on our TV screen for 10 weeks. The site might use language that many of us find irritating; but it is what ordinary people want to hear. Lawyers do not have the best image in the world –

We have already seen the moves by Eddie Stobart, The Co-Op and now a reality TV star, to get into this business. If we don’t engage with technology, social media and meet people and businesses where they are then we deserve all we get.

People want to know that their lawyer will listen to them and speak their language – although the ‘lovely’ bit is going a bit far!