Total Pageviews

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Concerning plonkers, sexism and professional dignity

I was once at a dinner at which I sat next to a former world snooker champion. He told me a story about a conversation, many years ago, between another leading player and an umpire which went something like this –

‘What would do say if called you a bent b******?’
‘I’d disqualify you immediately’.
‘What would you do if I thought you were a bent b******?’
‘I can’t stop what you think’
‘Well I think you’re a bent b******’

Which brings me nicely to two recent stories concerning how lawyers speak to each other.

Firstly there was the reprimand handed out to Richard Gregory Barca for calling an opponent ‘a complete plonker’.

To many this was a light-hearted reference to a favourite word used by Del Boy Trotter. The Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal found that this ‘tipped over into unacceptable conduct’. To be honest this sort of language is completely alien in the context of most litigation that I have ever handled. Whilst you want to advocate robustly for your client it should never become a personal confrontation between the lawyers. Some of my best friends in the profession have been regular opponents. This is because you spend so much time dealing with each other that you develop a mutual respect – not in a Stockholm Syndrome sort of way! You just learn that being respectful can lead to an effective outcome for your clients.

The second story shows that being offensive does not need to involve the use of insulting words.

This is the unfortunate LinkedIn message sent by solicitor Alexander Carter-Silk to barrister Charlotte Proudman. He began by saying – ‘I appreciate this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture.’ He then went on to say - ‘You definitely win the prize for the best Linked in (sic) picture I have ever seen.’

Now if you read any message which begins with a reference to political correctness you have a fairly good idea of what is coming next. Every time I read those words I want to curl up under my desk in embarrassment at the thought of an experienced member of my profession coming out with something like that. I am tempted to use the P word. But in fact it is more serious than that.

I can remember a time when it was almost unheard of to have a woman partner in a law firm. I can remember newly called women barristers of my age who struggled to get work because of their sex. Some even struggled to find a loo that they could use. In 2016, Liverpool Law society will have the 5th woman President in its 189 year history, although Alison Lobb will be the 4th in the last 10 years. So things are changing. Most of the bright young lawyers in my own firm are women.

So we are making progress. But there is still some way to go. In 2014, Lady Hale, the most senior woman judge in UK history, called for greater gender equality across our legal system –

We are moving steadily forwards. There are encouraging signs of progress. Then we hit a moment like this when an experienced solicitor drags us back a few decades. On what planet in 2016 is a professional woman measured by her photograph?– on a platform designed to enable us all to showcase professional skills and experience. It is like hitting the wrong square when you think you’re about to win a game of snakes and ladders.  

This is nothing to do with being politically correct.

It is about professional people treating each other with respect and dignity.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Fixed Fees in Medical Cases and conflict at the Law Society

I talked recently about Government plans to limit the fees recoverable by those who represent victims of Medical Negligence –

This is an issue which has been simmering for a while. 

Back in 2014 the Telegraph wrote an overtly political article which was titled – Ambulance Chasers push NHS Costs Bill to £200m.

The article blamed Claimant lawyers, alleging that they were adding to the beleaguered NHS bill. In particular they quoted the, then, CEO of the NHS Litigation Authority, Catherine Dixon – 

“They [some lawyers] are trying to maximise their profit. It seems to me that it is out of kilter with the level of damages they are seeking to recover from their clients and defence costs. I don’t think that charging significantly higher costs is appropriate, particularly against a body like the NHS which is looking after the health of the nation.”

She alleged that Law Firms frontloaded the costs by conducting ‘extensive investigations’. Anyone who has ever done one of these cases knows that you have to investigate any case before you submit a claim because advice from a medical expert is essential. The Telegraph stated that NHSLA had provided them with a list of firms whose costs had been reduced following assessment by the court.

In the light of recent rhetoric from the DOH Ms Dixon’s words are particularly alarming. This is because she is now the CEO of the Law Society. In this role she will inevitably be called upon to argue the case for lawyers to be paid fairly for the work done. This has to put her in a conflicted position. She has not merely argued the case for cutting back on the costs of those fighting for victims. She has associated herself with an undisguised political agenda which included publishing the names of particular law firms. These are firms which have done nothing wrong other than do their best for their clients within a legal costs system created by ministers.

The President of the Law Society has inevitably had to come to her defence saying that she was fully committed to ensuring that claimant lawyers were fairly rewarded. She herself has written in the Law Society’s Gazette calling for investment in NHS care as the effective way to reduce the legal bill. Some of us have been saying that for years.

The problem is she that is on record as saying what she thinks constitutes ‘fair reward’. How can she conduct robust negotiations on behalf of Law Society members? Will she openly repudiate what she said in the Telegraph Article and the tactics used by the organisation which she led.

Negotiations inevitably involve concessions. I suspect that fixed fees at some level will be introduced in medical negligence cases.

How can the Society’s CEO conduct realistic negotiations without constant reminders of what she has previously said and done.

It is a worry.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Day the QOCS stopped

The 1st April 2013 is a date which is ingrained in the memories of most litigation lawyers, especially those of us who act for victims of accidents, industrial diseases or medical negligence. It was the day that changed the world.

Almost all of these cases are dealt with on a no win no fee basis, so the claimant’s lawyers do not get paid if they do not win. Following implementation of the Jackson Report it was no longer possible to recover insurance premiums or success fees from defendants in successful cases, apart from a very limited exception in medical negligence cases. Recovery of these additional liabilities had been the foundation stone of the steps taken by the Labour Government in 2001 to remove Legal Aid for Personal injury work.

To mitigate the effect of this, the government introduced Qualified One Way Costs Shifting (QOCS). This meant that, in most cases, if a claimant lost a case they would not have to pay the other side’s legal costs. This in turn meant that there was no longer any need to take out insurance to cover those costs. So a claimant of limited means could pursue a claim with the comfort of knowing that they would not face a huge legal bill at the end if they failed.

The protection can be lost if there is evidence of fundamental dishonesty. It can also be lost in cases in relation to offers to settle under Part 36. I don’t propose to go into those detailed rules today. Kerry Underwood has written an excellent summary here –

The theory behind all this is to enable claimants to seek justice and sleep at night.

Sadly the theory and the reality are different. A claimant can be ordered to pay all of the other side’s costs if a claim is struck out because it shows no reasonable grounds for bringing the claim.

This is demonstrated by the tragic case of Wall v British Canoe Union. Mr. Wall was killed in a canoeing accident in January 2012. He was 49 years old. To make matters worse the accident was witnessed by his 16 year old daughter. The action was brought against the defendants as publishers of English White Water – The BCU Guidebook. The allegations were that the publication failed to give adequate warnings of the dangers at the particular waterway at which Mr Wall had his accident. Earlier this year Judge Lopez in the Birmingham County Court struck out the claim on the grounds that Mrs Wall had no reasonable grounds to pursue the claim. . It was found that the publishers owed no duty of care to readers of their guide. There was an insufficient relationship of proximity. The judgment is an interesting summary of the law of negligence and Gordon Exall has published a summary here –

So the unfortunate Mrs Wall, having lost her husband, also lost her claim. But the tragedy does not end there. She was also ordered to pay all of the Defendants’ legal costs. This is because the judge decided that she had no reasonable grounds to bring the claim. So she could now lose everything.

When I first read the judgment, I just thought that she must have been badly advised to have brought this case in the first place. But on reflection the judgment is disturbing. Here is an honest victim who has lost her husband and whose children have lost a father. The whole idea of QOCS is to enable such victims to bring their claims without the fear of costs and without the need for insurance. It was certainly not a spurious claim. The judgment runs to 38 pages. There were real arguments about the extent of a duty of care to readers of the guide.

Was it really the intention of the rules on QOCS, to deter victims from bringing such claims for fear of losing their homes? Where does this leave the development of the common law? Imagine where we would be if Mrs Donohue had been too scared to sue Mr Stevenson. Our legal system, which has been copied across the world, has been build on the basis of groundbreaking cases that have pushed the boundaries.

This is likely to grind to a halt following decisions like this.

That is not to criticise the judge who acknowledges that he is required to apply the law.

What we need is a revision of these rules on QOCS which were hastily introduced and help nobody.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Concerning fixed fees and more attacks on vicitms of medical blunders

The government is now consulting on the introduction of fixed recoverable fees in all Clinical Negligence cases with a value up to £250k. That will catch some very substantial cases involving severe disability.

It is no surprise that the move is justified on the basis of criticism of those law firms who represent victims. In a report mentioned by Litigation Futures the Department of Health says –

“in the experience of the [NHSLA], significant costs are often incurred by claimant lawyers in the pre-litigation and pre-notification period and are not subject to costs budgeting requirements. There is also evidence of claimant solicitors attempting to claim costs well in excess of the current guideline hourly rates, and considerably higher than the NHSLA pays its defence solicitors.”

I have mentioned before that it is inappropriate for the organization which represents the NHS to try and control the level of legal costs which they have to pay. They are clearly conflicted. Remember they are only paying anything in cases where liability is proven or admitted. A case involving awards up to £250k means life changing injuries.

Now I need to say that I am not particularly worried by the likelihood of fixed fees in straightforward cases.  I have long suspected that they were inevitable especially as costs budgeting seems to have been a shambolic and expensive experiment. Fixed fees are now widely used in commercial litigation and transactions. Payment by the hour is perceived as a reward for dragging cases out, particularly those which are not complex. But many cases up to £250k will be very complex.

What is clear, is that this is an attempt to reduce the number of genuine claims and the amounts payable to victims. If the NHS does not have to pay full legal costs in those cases where they are clearly at fault, it is the victims who will have to pick up any shortfall.

The NHSLA need to review their own conduct. I have started court proceedings in two cases, in  the last month, where the NHS failed to respond to a letter of claim within the four months set out in the pre action protocol. In both cases they have subsequently admitted liability. The legal costs are now much higher then they would have been. Why is that the victim’s fault?

It is also reported today that the NHSLA routinely fail to make interim payments to victims –

Many cases are aggressively contested and then settled late in the day for modest damages and huge legal costs. If these cases were resolved at an early stage there would be massive savings.

We have seen a developing pattern over the last few years where victims, and their representatives, are attacked as a prelude to the introduction of measures designed to shrink access to justice. I suspect that some form of fixed fees is inevitable across all civil litigation. But this has to be based on sensible and commercial discussions and not inflammatory rhetoric.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Litigation on planet Zarg!

The recent and brilliant judgment of Peter Smith J in Emerald Supplies Ltd v British Airways is a hilarious if disturbing read. It is certainly an insight into a world of litigation that most of us will never see.

The judgment itself is brief and deals with the judge’s reluctant decision to recuse himself –

It is part of the well publicised litigation involving thousands of claimants and BA who are represented by giant law firm Slaughter and May. The case concerns allegations relating to the conduct of BA and damages run to billions.

Peter Smith J was handed the responsibility of managing this huge and complex litigation. For reasons which are not apparent BA and their lawyers did not take to him and did all that they could to have him removed. At an early stage the lawyers for BA suggested that he did not have sufficient experience to deal with a case involving competition law, notwithstanding that he was an allocated judge in the Competition Appeals Tribunal – although he had not actually sat on a case.

But the powerful defendants and their lawyers were not deterred. 

By an unfortunate coincidence the learned judge flew to Florence with Mrs Peter Smith J. Yes you’ve guessed – it was a BA flight. And guess what? They lost his luggage on the return flight. In fact they lost all of the passengers’ luggage! The judge was rightly concerned –

He had hoped this was a matter that could be resolved. He was wrong.

They demanded that he remove himself from the case himself as he would now be biased.

‘Well, Slaughter and May wrote to me on Monday, requiring me to confirm immediately that I would recuse myself, failing which they would make an urgent application to the Court of Appeal.

The judge felt he had no alternative but to remove himself from the case and said so in robust terms!

So there we have it. If you don’t like your judge you lose his luggage!

Imagine if any of us tried that.

Most of us are more concerned about how our clients can access justice; or how we may might fight their corner and still earn a living. This is how the wealthy and powerful litigate –

This is a world unknown to any lawyer I have ever known.

This is in fact litigation on planet Zarg.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Tax The Lawyers for being Lawyers!

Moves are clearly afoot to transfer to burden of securing access to justice from the State to the Legal Profession.

This has been a live issue for a few years –

It also featured in Michael Gove’s first speech as Lord Chancellor in which he made no secret of his view that it was our responsibility –

This has been followed by a report from think tank ResPublica which takes the argument 'where no one has gone before'. They are calling for a compulsory pro bono ‘tax’ on practising lawyers requiring them to ensure that at least 10% of their work is done for no pay – with an exception for the beleaguered legal aid lawyers who only face a 5% tax.

The first problem with this proposal is that is completely ignores the work already done by the profession. In my blog from last year I referred to research by the Law Society which showed that Pro Bono work accounted for about 3% of turnover of all firms - £601m. This is rarely reported by the media.

The ResPublica Report then goes on to insult the entire profession by saying –

“A mandatory pro-bono obligation regulated by the professional bodies could help inculcate an understanding across the profession that the law is not just a business but also and most importantly a vocation.”

Now there may be some lawyers working in the City who have that attitude but I do not know any solicitor who not did go into the profession with an awareness of the need to secure justice for all. That is why many lawyers chose legal aid work, human and civil rights work or represent victims of accidents at work or medical negligence. Having regard to the relentless attacks of the last few years, nobody would choose that work simply as a means of getting rich.

But there is another more serious objection. Why should the legal profession pay an additional 10% tax by way of unpaid work? Tell me any other ‘vocational’ profession where that would even be considered. Lawyers pay tax like everyone else. How many journalists, doctors, teachers or politicians would consider sacrificing 10% of their income just for the privilege of working? The whole idea is misconceived as it is rooted in the myth of the ‘fat cat’ lawyers. More firms have gone bust in the last 5 years than in my previous 30 years as a solicitor. 

How dare this remote think tank in Wesminster question the vocation of those lawyers who cannot new accept criminal work as the new legal aid rates would be a road to oblivion?

It may be that ResPublica are directing their attacks at those wealthy commercial and banking lawyers who do earn huge salaries. But this assumes that all lawyers have the same skills and experience. A high flying solicitor who is a genius at mergers and acquisitions will have no experience of defending those threatened with homelessness of appealing against benefit sanctions. That is specialist and demanding work – not ‘cast off’ work that can be dome almost as a hobby.

Of course the real agenda here is that access to justice is in crisis. I have previously called it a waste land. Mr Gove acknowledged this in his speech. We all know that the answer to this is a properly funded legal aid scheme guaranteeing all citizens access to our justice system. The government has no intention of considering this and so they turn to the easy targets – the lawyers!

That approach is now getting a bit long in the tooth and I suspect that the public will begin to see it for what it is.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Budget - Legal aid, Motor Insurance and more bad news for students!

It seems that everyone is talking about the Conservatives’ first budget since 1996. There has been praise and criticism. The main headline grabber has been the National Living Wage – a renamed version of the minimum wage. It may not be pitched at a level that a person could actually live on, but it is an improvement and to that extent should be welcomed.

What does this budget have to say about legal matters? How does it affect lawyers, those who lawyers represent and those who aspire to be lawyers? To be honest there was not a lot but some things are worthy of comment.

Mr Osborne promised to spend more on the protection of victims of domestic violence. £3.2 million will be spent on refuges. These centres have experienced a funding crisis and this investment will clearly be welcome –

But the Chancellor seems to have no intention of making it easier for victims to gain access to justice. There is some legal aid available although this is not widely known or publicised. In order to get legal aid, victims have to gather evidence which is often time consuming or even prohibitive. By coincidence, one very disturbing rule was changed this week. This was the rule that said that you cannot get or continue to have legal aid if the incident of violence took place more than two years ago. This created the bizarre scenario where victims could get legal aid and then lose it once the two year mark was reached. That can no longer happen and this has been welcomed –

But if the Government really want to protect victims, they should reinstate a properly funded legal aid scheme allowing them free access to protection from the courts.

Osborne referred briefly to the need for further regulation of claims management companies. This is hardly new ground. They are already regulated and in some cases payment of referral fees has been banned. It is also true that many companies flout the rules. Cold calling is still widely prevalent. I have been the subject of one such call!

So anything that stops this kind of behaviour is welcome. What is more worrying is the link between compensation claims and high insurance premiums. This rhetoric has been around for years along with the myth that there is a compensation culture. All of the attacks on victims of motor accidents in recent years have been linked to the need to reduce premiums. It is a huge irony therefore, that in the same budget speech the chancellor has announced a massive increase in insurance premium tax which will of course be paid for by motorists!

The worst news from this budget, however, is for those unfortunate students who plan to pursue a legal career. They already face a huge, uphill struggle with eye watering debt and few job opportunities –

So it is a huge disappointment to hear that maintenance grants are to be abolished and replaced by even more loans. The average debt on qualification is about £50k. That figure is bound to rise and will certainly deter many. This will lead to a narrowing of the profession to those who can afford to pay. At a time when most observers agree that more diversity is needed, this is very bad news. Of course that particular nightmare is not limited to law students –

So that is the lawyer’s view. It was a budget with one or two crumbs. But there is little to cheer about for those who are concerned about justice or might, one day, plan to make this their career choice.