JusticeWatch: Dinosaur attitudes at Chancery Lane

Raking it in
‘Lawyers raked in £32.2bn in just ONE year,’ fumed the Daily Mail. ‘Despite strikes by barristers over their pay levels and protests from senior lawyers who demand greater taxpayer subsidies, the legal profession has been booming.’

‘Lawyers’ campaigning against legal aid cuts included a series of strikes by barristers who protested that some of their number earned as little as £13,000 a year – although one picket line protest outside the Old Bailey was marred when one barrister joined in carrying a £1,100 Mulberry handbag.’
Daily Mail

If you don’t recall, the Mail went to town on the ‘lady barrister’ who turned up to a legal aid demo with her oversized designer handbag – as reported on LegalVoice (here).

According to fact checkers Full Fact, the Mail’s figures were ‘broadly correct – but lawyers have grounds for complaint about the way they’re used in the story’. The £32 billion figure was from a report released by the Legal Services Board and referred to turnover by Britain’s legal sector in 2015. Whilst that sum had been rising, Full Fact noted that legal aid was ‘a relatively small and falling proportion’ of that.

Solicitors working in legal aid earned around a third less than their counterparts who didn’t take publicly-funded work, reckoned the group. But it went on to note: ‘That’s not to say that such lawyers are poor: legal aid solicitors who own a stake in their firm earned an average of £70,000 that year: well over twice the national average.’

Dinosaur attitudes
Catherine Dixon wrote that she could not ‘in good faith continue to be CEO of an organization which [was] not prepared to change’ in an extraordinary letter of resignation to the Law Society’s governing council published on January 3. ‘The Law Society’s governance is costly, bureaucratic and does not reflect how successful modern organisations operate,’ wrote the outgoing chief exec. ‘The Law Society, in my view cannot, because of its current governance arrangements, operate in a responsive and agile way. It is impossible, as an effective CEO, to navigate the complex and often overlapping boards in a way which best serves the organisation and its members. This is not news to Council. When asked to describe the Law Society, you chose the words moribund, old fashioned and bureaucratic…’

Anyone who has seen the Law Society council in action over the past 20 years would not be surprised by such an analysis, reckoned Neil Rose on Legal Futures. Noting that over the years Chancery Lane had been ‘something of a retirement home for men winding down from practice’, Rose revealed that when he first started attending council the member representing women solicitors’ interests was a man.

From the Law Society to the silage heap, was how the Times’ Brief newsletter covered the news that Dixon was leaving Chancery Lane to run one of the UK’s biggest agricultural colleges. Either Dixon was ‘a secret fan of The Archers or life at Chancery Lane became so unbearable that she embraced the first friendly face that came along – even if it had a strong whiff of the farmyard about it,’ it said.

‘Sources close to Chancery Lane have whispered to The Brief that Dixon was “pretty bloody pissed off” with what she perceived to be a dinosaur attitude on the council,’ reckoned the Brief.

Meanwhile more women were awarded ‘the gold standard advocacy rank’ than in any time before in the last decade, reported the Brief newsletter. Thirty-one women barristers were made QCs out of a total of 113 lawyers – so progress of sorts . The Law Society’s Gazette reported that there were the highest number of solicitors appointed silk in one go: six.

LALY winner Marcia Willis-Stewart of Birnberg Peirce, who led a team of more than 30 lawyers representing 77 of the Hillsborough disaster families, received an honorary QC.

LASPO review
Further to Liz Truss’s recent promise of a timetable for the long awaited LASPO (see LegalVoice here), Alison Pickup of the Public Law Project sent the justice secretary ‘a non-exhaustive list of areas of particular concern’ in a seven page letter.

The PLP  flagged up the new and failing CCMS digital billing system which, strictly speaking, was nothing to do with LASPO; but, the group said it ‘presented an opportunity to streamline and modernise applications to the benefit of clients, providers and the LAA alike’.

‘However, in practice its operation and poor functionality is a major barrier to access to legal aid,’ the group said. The experience of many providers was that errors were ‘extremely common’, that the system was ‘slow and cumbersome to operate’ and added ‘significantly to the administrative burden of legal aid cases’. ‘It represents a significant threat to the viability of legal aid practice,’ the PLP reckoned.

The problems posed by CCMS had been ‘exacerbated by the fact that delegated powers are not available in most areas of law post-LASPO’. ‘Thus even in dealing with urgent matters, including those where individuals’ life or liberty is at risk or children are at risk of losing a roof over their heads, providers often have to make an application to the LAA before they can commence work,’ it noted. You can download the letter here.

Writing for the New Law Journal, the Legal Action Group director Steve Hynes noted that there had been a 25% decline in the number of solicitors undertaking civil legal aid work. ‘The cuts to civil legal aid have had an even more brutal impact on the Not for Profit advice centres,’ he said. ‘They lost 77% of their income from legal aid due to the cuts to legal help. Research published by the MoJ shows that these and other budget cuts have led to an over 50% reduction in the number of centres in recent years.’

Firms bidding for new criminal legal aid contracts were being warned about new requirements to tackle ‘ghost’ duty solicitors, reported the Gazette. ‘Ghosts’ are those solicitors whose details were used to claim slots but who do not actually do any work, explained the Gazette.

‘Our priority is to ensure that there is a sustainable criminal defence service in which the best criminal legal aid firms can thrive,’ said CLSA chair Zoe Gascoyne. ‘’This is obviously put at risk if firms are operating to different standards, particularly if firms gain an advantage by actually failing to comply with the contract terms – as opposed to those firms that have correctly adopted the standards applied in the new contract.’ Duty solicitors would be required to carry out 14 hours’ contract work per week.

Jonathan Black, former president of the London Criminal Court Solicitors Association, tweeted thus:

Why is someone who works part time described as a ‘ghost’, asked one lawyer. Ask the CLSA, replied Black. This prompted a terse exchange between Black and Bill Waddington of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association about what was/ wasn’t agreed to be the definition of ‘ghost’.

Say hello
Greater Manchester Law Centre have appointed their first supervising solicitor, Ngaryan Li. You can read more about the new Law Centre here.

According to GMLC: ‘Ngaryan has devoted her career to helping the most vulnerable in society, establishing a pro bono service at Stephensons Solicitors to help maintain access to justice after Legal Aid was axed for those people trapped by the complexities and unfairness of the social security system. She now joins the Law Centre as Supervising Solicitor, bringing her extensive knowledge in social welfare law and a hunger to right the wrongs endured by so many. She hopes to help guide the Law Centre towards the goal of becoming a leading campaigning community law centre in Britain, serving the interests of Greater Manchester residents and influencing wider policy affecting the public at large.’

Date for your diary
LawWorks, the solicitors’ pro bono charity, is to feature in BBC Radio 4 Appeal on Sunday on January 22.

Clive Anderson will be making makiung the appeal which  will feature the story of Trish, a 59 year old grandmother who has been caring for her 18 year old grandson, Billy, since he was three. Trish had to give up full-time work to care for Billy – who is blind, autistic and has epilepsy – but she struggled to get support when Billy turned 18. Unable to pay for a lawyer and not eligible for legal aid, Trish received pro bono legal advice from a solicitor volunteering at a pro bono advice clinic in a children’s hospice. Following correspondence with the NHS, Billy now receives extra night-time respite care and additional respite care at weekends.

The Appeal will be broadcast on Radio 4 at 7.55am on Sunday 22 January (repeated at 9.26pm) and again on Thursday 26  January at 3.27pm.



About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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