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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.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Judicial Review - public protection or left wing propaganda?

Judicial Review has been a cornerstone of our legal system for many years. It is the means by which actions and decisions of the executive can be subject to scrutiny by the courts. 

If they are found to be unlawful then they can be set aside or changed.

The procedure has been used in countless cases including decisions of the NHS on healthcare, subjecting tenants to the risk of eviction via the bedroom tax and decisions to refuse legal aid. I once took a case for a victim of medical negligence over NHS proposals for investment of his damages. It is something which has never enjoyed great popularity with ministers.

The government is now proposing to severely restrict access to Judicial Review. In a consultation on ‘reform’ there are plans to increase the cost, restrict the rights to oral hearings and to impose stricter time limits. Minister of Justice, Chris Grayling has said that the aim is speed up the process which can take up large amounts of judicial time.

But according to the Daily Mail he is intent on blocking the actions of what he calls – ‘countless Left-wing campaigners.’

He refers specifically to an action brought by APIL in relation to plans to drastically cut the amounts of legal costs that victims of accidents can recover from insurers. I blogged on that at the time –

APIL represents those lawyers who pursue claims on behalf of victims both of accidents and medical negligence. They are certainly not 'left wing campaigners' by any stretch of the imagination. In fact back in 2004 the Countryside alliance brought a Judicial Review action to stop the ban on fox hunting –

I’m sure they would love being identified with the left!

The rhetoric used by the Minister suggests that the real agenda is to stop actions that they don't like. If that is the case then this is a dangerous example of the law and procedure being changed to block accountability.

The reality is that citizens have long enjoyed this right to ask the courts to review decisions by public bodies. This is an important check in a modern democracy. I have gone on and on over the last year or so about the erosion of the rights of ordinary people. But this could be one of the most serious of all.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Progress on Legal Aid - but much to do!

One issue which dominated legal news over the summer was the future of Criminal Legal Aid. This was caused by the Government’s controversial plans to restrict a Defendant’s right to choose his own lawyer and to sell off legal aid contracts to the highest bidder.

This led to one of the most committed campaigns by lawyers that I have ever known  -

The Ministry of Justice had no convincing argument against the campaign and at one time resorted to briefing its friends in the press about so called fat cat lawyers. But this was an issue that would not go away. Lawyers, many of whomwho had no dealings with criminal work, were fully behind the campaign for one simple reason – it was wrong. It was attack on the fundamental rights of those accused by the state to be represented by the lawyer of their choice.

Minister Chris Grayling has now confirmed that these particular plans are to be scrapped and that there will be further consultation on Legal Aid  

This is certainly good news and we should be grateful to those lawyers who have kept up the relentless pressure on a Government that has finally had to take notice.

That is not to say that the problem has gone away. A number of highly damaging moves will not be changed. One major worry is the proposed introduction of means testing for Defendants in Criminal Cases. Anyone with disposal income over £37,500 a year and with £3,000 a month left after bills will not be eligible. This is not a question of the very wealthy getting legal aid. This means that any hard-working person with a reasonable income who is charged with an offence, whether rightly or wrongly, will have to go into debt to defend themselves. And we have seen again this week that terrible miscarriages of justice do occur –

The state has virtually unlimited resources to prosecute citizens. Those who are accused should have equal access to the resources to defend themselves. If a person is convicted they can be made to pay towards the legal aid costs but removal of legal aid is again tipping the balancer in favour of the state.  

So there has been progress for which we should all be grateful. But there is still much to do.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Human Rights - will the UK and Belarus stand together?

A former Senior Judge of the European Court of Human Rights has warned that attacks on the Human Rights Act, by members of the government, is tarnishing our international reputation.

One of my recurrent themes here has been the need to protect our Human Rights in the face of relentless attacks by politicians, particularly the present government, who seem to be determined to abolish the Human Rights Act 1998 or even withdraw the UK from the European Convention on human rights altogether.

It is likely that some proposals to remove these rights will be in the next Conservative Party manifesto.

I think a brief history lesson might be useful here. In the late 1940s the world was still recovering from the most terrifying world war ever known. In 1948 the new United Nations set up a Human Rights Commission chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt – widow of the late President Franklin Roosevelt. She was the driving force behind the establishment of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which she described as ‘an international Magna Carta for all mankind.’

Winston Churchill was pressing for a European Charter which was eventually signed in Rome in 1950. The UK was the first nation to ratify the Convention in 1951. The European court on Human rights was established in 1959. Anyone who alleged breach of their rights had to go via this court in Strasbourg until the Human Rights Act 1998 gave UK courts jurisdiction to hear cases directly. The Act did not create any new rights. It just gave our courts the right to hear cases.

The UK has been at the heart of human rights in Europe and across the world. The attacks by politicians and some in the media need to be seen against this backcloth. What message are we sending to the world by threatening to withdraw from a convention that we put in place? 

Withdrawal would place alongside Belarus as the only nation in Europe which was not in the ECHR.

The European Convention has protected the lives of many. According to Sir Nicolas Bratza the court, last year, dealt with 88,000 cases.

We often like to talk the talk about Human Rights, especially when attacking other countries. Sir Nicolas is right. How can we expect to speak with any credibility when we threaten to remove these very rights from those in our own country.

Monday, 2 September 2013

When is a mugging not really a mugging?

The well publicised battle between the Law Society and the ABI over the Society’s Personal Injury, advertising campaign has finally been brought to an end by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA).

You will recall that the ABI had complained about the advertisements and went as far as accusing lawyers of ‘mugging the public’ –

They took their grievances to the ASA who have firmly rejected them. One of the complaints was that it suggested that insurers were criminals who beat up claimants! Now the image shows somebody who has certainly had a bad day but the wording clearly refers to victims of an accident. 

Relations between the legal profession and the insurance sector may be at an all time low but no-one would suggest for a minute that they have taken to physically assaulting claimants in a dark alley! The ASA agreed that the advertisement would not suggest to anyone that insurers were criminals.

The same goes for the word ‘mugged’ which any sensible person would understand as a financial mugging caused by accepting inadequate offers.

The campaign has now ended and has certainly generated publicity for victims of accidents. And it was an entirely appropriate campaign. Insurance companies have continued to insist that they should be allowed to settle damages claims directly with victims, and that lawyers just make the system more expensive.

But in reality anybody dealing with these cases knows that the insurers will always want to keep payments to a minimum. I recently mentioned a case involving terrible injuries where, they had to be dragged to a court hearing before a realistic result was achieved –

So it is encouraging that the ASA have taken a sensible view. 

The Law Society do not always get the credit they deserve but on this occasion they have done a great job – both in terms of the campaign itself and sticking firmly to ther guns in the face of powerful opposition.