In praise of QualitySolicitors

QualitySolicitors, the firm everyone loves to hate, has admitted it ‘grew too quickly’. I can hear the crowing as I type, lots of ‘I told you so’ and ‘it was only a matter of time’. The pink chickens have, many would like to believe, definitely come home to roost, leaving QS looking decidedly forlorn and ready for plucking.

I suspect not quite. For a start, their not-so-new boss, Eddie Ross, seems to know his onions. He certainly knows a lot more about branding than any of the naysayers who have leant their (mostly anonymous) pearls of wisdom to the comments on the Law Gazette’s interview with him this week. And he does a good job of getting to the pIoint ‘It is not about turning you into super-rich lawyers. It is about offering a better service than your competitors next door’.

QS did grow too far too fast and promised too much too soon. However, it is arguable that if it hadn’t we wouldn’t even be talking about it because it would have disappeared without a trace before you could say ‘Amanda Holden’. Nothing like putting a few people’s noses out of joint if you want to make a bigger splash than you deserve.

I don’t like the pink, I’m not mad about the name, and I thought urging us to love lawyers was definitely a step to far. But I liked the ‘Hard Road to Travel’ advert, even though it was probably something The Law Society should have made rather than QS. Being all John Lewis about legal services will really only work if, well, if you are John Lewis, but there’s no shame in trying. I’m quite sure nothing bad could ever happen in John Lewis, which strikes me as rather a good feeling for a law firm to emulate.

I was never quite sure whether people were disparaging about the now defunct WH Smith tie-up because they hated the idea or just the fact it was with a chain of shops that have been selling DIY will packs for decades. I still don’t see what is wrong with the idea of having legal information and advice available in shopping centres, even if having fixed points in a glorified newsagents is not the best way to do it.

These assumed failures do not mean the whole QS venture was all mouth and no trousers. It may not have invented Saturday opening or the concept of fixed fees, but QS helped to normalise them in a sector where for too long services had been offered for the convenience of the professionals rather than those paying their salaries, the customers.

The recent launch of its online customer platform may not be a headline grabber, but it should help member firms to do what QS set out to do in the first place, make legal services more convenient, approachable and affordable for whole swathes of consumers who are put off by the high costs and labour intensive nature that still pervades much of the legal market.

Equally, with the likes of Irwin Mitchell and Slater & Gordon continuing to pursue world domination (and who would bet against them?) QS is an alternative for good local firms to compete, keeping their own identity but taking advantage of the opportunities, including branding, that QS provides.

QualitySolicitors would not be the first trailblazer to make the running then shuffle back quietly into the pack. Anyone else looking to make a splash in this market should thank QS for taking all the flack while they could quietly go about their business.

It is also worth remembering that it is only by getting things wrong that you learn how to get them right (although this does not, apparently, apply to the current ‘Lord’ Chancellor). Which suggests that even if QS is not getting any bigger just now, it’s probably getting better. Shame the same can’t be said for everyone.

Please St Albans cafes, stop serving up boobs with your beverages

Like it or not, The Sun is the most popular paper in Britain, reaching over 12 million readers a week, and is the world’s highest circulating English language newspaper. That’s quite a success story and suggests the paper wields a fair amount of clout. So it’s rather depressing that The Sun still thinks the most important thing about a woman is her boobs.

I don’t know how many people buy the paper for the boobs, but whichever way you look at it, readers of The Sun are getting a bit of soft porn next to their news every day. There is no other reason for having a gratuitous picture of a topless woman in a newspaper, not one.

Nobody cares whether Rosie from Redcar is cheering on the England team or not, and if Katie from Kettering really cares about the starving children in Africa she’d be preparing food parcels, not getting her kit off. And while promoting awareness of breast cancer is undoubtedly laudable, using glamorous topless models to do it is insensitive at best.

Page 3 has been gracing the nation’s breakfast tables for 44 years. Some people think this makes it something of a tradition that hasn’t done any harm, but not everything that’s been around a long time is harmless or a good thing. Female circumcision is not a good thing. Neither was slavery or locking up gay people.

In 1970 women were routinely paid less than men, often had to leave their jobs when they got married, could not get a mortgage, credit or loan in their own name and had no protection against sexual discrimination in work, education or training. Hardly the sort of environment we should want to let linger.

And yet it is still hanging around like a bad smell.  I won’t go into all the reasons why we should put an end to publishing bare breasts in a newspaper, because they have already been set out perfectly by the No More Page 3 campaign.   Even Rupert Murdoch, the lucky owner of The Sun, recently asked on Twitter ‘aren’t beautiful young women more attractive in at least some fashionable clothes’?

Murdoch might hold the power, but things don’t change if you wait for the big people to change their minds, and every little bit helps. Which is why I want to see an end to Page 3 in the family-friendly cafes in my home town of St Albans. Of course, I can’t stop people reading The Sun, but I hope I can stop it being readily available for viewing in places I go with my 5-year-old daughter.

I’ll admit I am terrified about protecting her from the impact of all the sexualised images that will increasingly bombard her as she grows up. I can’t hide all of them, and it probably wouldn’t be wise to do so, but there is something particularly distasteful about being able to get a daily fix of boobs along with the news. If she does see it and asks why that lady has no top on, there is no answer other than ‘because men like looking at her’, not a great message for a young, impressionable girl.

So I don’t want to see The Sun when I go out for coffee, certainly not in places that actively promote themselves as family friendly by providing toys, books or having special children’s menus. I can’t see how it would damage business to stop providing The Sun, or cutting out Page 3, which was the solution arrived at by one local café. If customers are that desperate to have tits with their tea they can bring their own copy and, hopefully, take it home with them to peruse at their leisure.

My local ‘campaign’, if it can be called that, was launched by accident when I noticed a copy of the offending newspaper on a coffee table next to a box of toys in one of my favourite local cafés. I had a very civil conversation with the manager about it and decided to try and encourage other mums to support me via a local Facebook group.

I have since discovered just how much apathy, intransigence, opposition and downright hostility there is towards my suggestion that The Sun is not a suitable paper for a family-friendly establishment. But I’m going for it all the same and taking inspiration from the national No More Page 3 campaign. I plan to write to as many local cafés as I can think of asking them to remove The Sun or at least Page 3 and I’ll post updates here. I hope you will join me. In the meantime, please sign the No More Page 3 petition and like the Facebook page.

A friend in need

Everything changes. Mountains erode, coastlines crumble and even Bruce Forsyth eventually retires. But if you think the pace of change is a little too quick there is still one place that remains constant – head on over to the comments section of the Law Gazette. You can be sure, whatever is going on elsewhere, there you will find lawyers unhappy about something, and normally it’s something said by the Legal Services Consumer Panel.

Predictably, the Panel’s latest report calling for a ‘culture change’ in attitudes towards McKenzie friends went down like a lead balloon with lawyers. McKenzie friends, it said, are a ‘legitimate feature of the modern legal market’ and increase access to justice. Much of the legal profession, it seems, does not agree.

Once upon a time McKenzie Friends were just selfless volunteers who, out of the goodness of their hearts, gave up their own time to help litigants in person who can’t, or don’t want to, use a lawyer, by providing moral support, taking notes, offering advice and helping prepare for court. Now, shockingly, they are increasingly starting to charge.

Lawyer outrage is understandable. They spend quite a lot of time and money qualifying and it must be pretty galling to have studied for years and struggled to get a training contract only to see a lot of unqualified so-and-sos come along and undercut you. And because they aren’t regulated they could be doing heaven knows what.

Except in most cases they aren’t. What they are doing is providing valuable support for people who quite conceivably would otherwise have no access to justice. With legal aid withdrawn from all but the most acute cases, the number of litigants in person, those attending court without a lawyer, is increasingly dramatically.

On the face of it, I’m a fairly knowledgeable, confident and determined person, but I wouldn’t want to represent myself. If someone who’d been through the process before offered me a helping hand for a reasonably modest fee, I’d probably take it. And let’s be honest, the fact s/he isn’t a lawyer is probably a bonus.

It is perfectly reasonable to expect that justice can still be served without legal representation. Indeed it is vital this is the case, particularly when the government seems to be determined to remove lawyers as much as possible from the process of law. This may seem a bit bonkers, but it’s what we’ve got to work with.

Obviously there are risks in unqualified, unregulated and uninsured people supporting litigants in person, but arguably these are outweighed by the alternative, which is people deciding not to go to court at all, or turning up without the slightest clue of what they are doing.

Amazingly, most consumers, even those unable to afford a lawyer, are not stupid and are quite capable of understanding the limits of support that can be offered by a McKenzie friend. And of course, advice is not confined to the unregulated – lawyers are quite capable of not living up to their own professional standards. What consumers need is not a closed shop, but clear, reliable and easily accessible information about their options.

McKenzie friends themselves have acted on the Panel’s recommendation and plan to set up their own trade association to represent those non-lawyer advisers who charge fees.  I would suggest they get on with it, because the vast array of McKenzie friend websites already out there risk confusing consumers.  I would also like to suggest they stop using hourly rates and come up with some sort of fixed-fee system, otherwise they are in danger of creating the same cost uncertainty that has annoyed consumers of legal services for years.

I do wish lawyers would stop being so afraid of change and innovation. Granted, a lot of the change in the legal market at the moment is not of a particularly positive variety, but getting hot under the collar about something that might mitigate at least some of its worst effects is counterproductive. And it will happen anyway.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance” Alan Watts

The secret of happiness

Want to know the secret of happiness? Want to know how to solve your financial problems, ensure the sun is always shining and have neighbours who smile all the time?  It’s surprisingly easy.  Just get yourself an injury in an accident that isn’t your fault.  Any sort will do, although obviously the less serious the better because you wouldn’t want to be in any real pain or anything.

Maybe get knocked off a ladder (not a high one mind) or have a bit of a bash with another car that wasn’t looking at a junction (not a fast or busy one).  It happens a lot apparently, and it not only makes you very happy, you get free money.  I saw it in an advert, so it must be true.

Or not.  A few years ago, when I was working for a national law firm that, naturally, earned a lot of its income from personal injury work, there wasn’t a week went by without somebody on TV or radio mocking claimant firm adverts.

They were right to do so, although legal marketing experts told me that making ads trying to appeal to notions of justice and fairness didn’t have the same conversion rates as constantly ramming cash inducements or ‘no win no fee’ messages down our throats.  More fool us.

There’s been less of it about lately, but then last week Liverpool-based firm Hampson Hughes launched its new ad campaign, and it was just begging to be ridiculed.  On Thursday, Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe on BBC1 duly obliged.  You can see why for yourself: lots of absurdly happy people singing and dancing about with some indeterminate blue and yellow creatures seemingly unconcerned that they had not long ago suffered some sort of debilitating injury.

Have these people learned nothing from the ‘compensation culture’ scandal?  As reported on Legal Futures, the firm argues that up-front payments are often needed because claims take time to settle, leaving people at a financial disadvantage.  They insist only those with genuine injuries can benefit and not all qualify, but it’s no good refining the message on a website, the damage is done by the advert:  ‘Two thousand pounds up front?  Cool!’

This nauseating commercial comes hot on the heels of a similarly jaunty affair from First4lawyers in which tennis player Andrew Castle (an expert in personal injury claims, who knew?) and another crowd of terribly happy people claim ‘this is what justice feels like’ while jollying along to ‘I can’t fight this feeling’.  Getting an injury must be a lot of fun.

If it were only my sensibilities being harmed by these ads I wouldn’t be complaining.  I am quite happy to be upset, offended, wrong or whatever whenever.  And I don’t want to deprive comedians of a rich seam of mickey-taking possibilities, but surely this sort of ‘money for nothing’ promotion is just how claimant lawyers got themselves into trouble in the first place?

Unfortunately, it’s not just the reputation of lawyers that is damaged by the trashing of the claimant industry by insurers, politicians and the press. Changes to the system may end up making it harder for those genuinely injured to make a claim, and those with anything less than arms and legs hanging off after an accident may be put off being tarred with the ‘money for nothing’ brush.

Believe it or not, personal injury lawyers do an important job and deserve to be held in slightly higher regard than they are.  Quite a few of them don’t just process simple, uncomplicated, claims like whiplash suffered in a rear-end shunt (although apparently this never actually happens or at least isn’t at all painful).  Often they are securing vital compensation for people who have suffered painful and debilitating or catastrophic injuries caused by accidents or by clinical negligence.  Not so happy and jolly now.

It’s quite possible that First4lawyers and Hampson Hughes don’t give two figs about the reputation of personal injury lawyers as a whole, as long as they keep the work coming in.  More worryingly, in times of austerity, it will be difficult to encourage consumers, even the most sophisticated, to choose the best lawyer for them, and not let their decision be skewed by the offer of a cash incentive.

Any suggestion of a reinvigorated ‘have a go’ culture won’t do any of us any favours, except the tabloid papers missing their daily outrage about £300,000 for slipping on a grape or £10,000 for falling off a broken chair.  The injuries sustained are not important, someone nearly became a half millionaire after slipping on a grape!!!  Two grand up front?  Cool, I’ll have some of that. 

Justice is worth more than money

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

When it comes to ideas of justice I’m with Shakespeare.  A class performance of Act 4, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice had such an impact on me that nearly 30 years later I can remember who played which part, even though we were in an English lesson and still in school uniform.  Would that some members of the government had had the same experience.

I find myself increasingly questioning what exactly government, particularly this government, is for.  I thought, stupidly, that it was there to protect the poor and weak, the disadvantaged and vulnerable, the sick and ostracised.  After all, the rich, mighty, clever and powerful can largely look after themselves.

I am not going to list everything our current rulers have done that could reasonably be assumed to contravene that purpose.  Suffice to say if you’re not part of a ‘hard-working family’ (whatever that is) you are probably not in favour.

However, this government does take one of its duties, protecting the rule of law, very seriously indeed.  It takes as its blueprint that tried and tested method of keeping order by just silencing anyone who dissents and trying to dispose (quietly or otherwise) of those lesser people who are just a drain on resources and apparently contribute nothing to the greater good.

This is actually quite baffling because, with the arguable exception of North Korea, contrary to what seems logical, this has been shown not to work; but then facts have always been a bit problematic for this government.  If the new ‘gagging law’curtailing what campaigning organisations, from your local community group up to the largest national charities, can say or do in the year before a general election is not sufficient proof for you, then attempts to slash legal aid should be.

You may agree with the Minister of Justice that lawyers are paid far too much for defending wicked criminals, dirty immigrants and scrounging serial benefit cheats (on the whole, they aren’t) but it’s a dirty job and someone’s got to do it.  Or not if Chris Grayling gets his way, because cuts in the criminal legal aid budget mean anyone could find themselves caught up in the wrong end of the justice system with no means of climbing out.

Anyone in any one of those hard-working families politicians love so much could fall foul of the law.  You could easily be in the wrong place at the wrong time, be wrongly accused, involved in a car accident, get into a fight, drive too fast or over the limit or be mistaken for someone else.  Could you afford a shit-hot lawyer to plead your case and hopefully get you off?  You can be sure most government ministers could.

Politicians might think the poor and disadvantaged are a breed apart, different from the rest of us, who have always been that way.  That’s probably why they have already slashed the budget for civil legal aid (ie for anything not criminal in nature).  But anyone in any one of those hard-working families could find themselves caught up in debt with no means of climbing out and end up losing their home.  Any one of them could lose their job and get sick and need to rely on welfare payments of one sort or another to feed the rest of their family.  And it’s quite likely that quite a few of them will get divorced.  Could you afford a lawyer if you suffered at the hands of a negligent doctor or unscrupulous employer?  If not, you’d better hope you’re adequately insured.

The government has been keen to characterise legal aid as an expensive and unnecessary handout.  The problem is, justice is not about money and once you start characterising it as such you risk opening up all sorts of cans of worms.  The justice system is, or it should be, the bedrock of democracy.  Believe it or not, Parliament is also vital for democracy but you don’t need it to govern.  Not surprisingly no one is suggesting we scrap that because it’s expensive and unnecessary.

Justice does not mean the same to everybody (political philosopher Michael Sandel explains this best).  On the whole our concept of justice goes beyond the purely utilitarian (ensuring the most people possible are happy) and libertarian (respecting everyone’s right to live as they choose) and makes judgements about who deserves what and which virtues are worthy of recognition.  If justice is about making these sorts of decisions then it is more than a marketplace, it is about defining a shared project for the common good.  It means we accept that markets cannot by themselves confer fairness and requires us to decide whether there are areas of life that cannot be left to the power of what’s in your pocket.

Is it acceptable for Westerners to pay Indian women to carry babies for them?  What is the problem with allowing parents to secure a place for their child at a university by making a substantial donation?  Should we pay children to encourage them to read, or donors to give blood, or drug addicts to become sterilised?

While these questions may seem to have little in common with the legal aid debate they all have the same source:  is there a moral limit to markets and are some things beyond a straightforward cost price analysis?  What is the point of having a government meant to protect and nurture society if we simply submit everything to a value for money argument?

This is the point of legal aid, to ensure that every one of us, from the prince to the pauper, is equal before the law.  Without it, what stake do those unable to access justice have in our society?  Why should they submit to the rule of law if it offers them nothing in return?  But rather than justice, this government seems to offer nothing but vengeance.

The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it.

(The Merchant of Venice, Act IV scene I)

Rogue bosses get the green light

Today the government has really surpassed itself in taking giant leaps backwards.  Most people probably won’t even notice, at least not until they have an injury at work.  With the controversial section 69 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 coming into force today, which removes strict liability for breaches of certain health and safety regulations.

If that all sounds a bit nebulous, here’s a post I wrote about it last year.  As the  Association of Personal Injury Lawyers claims, it really is ‘a charter for rogue bosses’.

And did those feet….

Originally posted on the QualitySolicitors blog on November 6, 2012

Poor old health and safety, it gets a bit of a bum rap. It should be lauded as one of the great achievements of the 20th century, protecting millions of workers from death and injury at work because of careless or unscrupulous employers. We should cherish it for not only making work a safer place to be but for ensuring that when things do go wrong guilty bosses have to pay up.

Instead it is blamed for everything from creating oppressive red tape that stifles economic growth to preventing kids from playing conkers and pubs from putting up hanging baskets.  Next time you see a tabloid headline slamming our onerous ‘elf and safety’ regime it is worth remembering that last year 173 people died because of workplace accidents and 22,433 were seriously injured.

No matter, these days it’s all quite safe and the rules that once protected children from being mangled and crushed by machinery are now just a nuisance.  Apparently employers are now overburdened by costly and unnecessary health and safety inspections and, it seems, encumbered by a compensation culture that has driven them to an understandable over-compliance with the regulations.

So the government has decided to act and free business from these shackles by making it harder for people injured at work to get compensation.  This is quite easily done by quickly and quietly slipping in a clause to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill during its final stages in the Commons.  And hey presto, the automatic right to compensation for an injury caused by a breach of health and safety regulations, enshrined in the law since 1898, is gone!

It may not be quite gone as the bill still has to make its way through the Lords, but the government has made its intentions clear.  Announcing the changes, business secretary Vince Cable said: ‘In these tough times, businesses need to focus all their energies on creating jobs and growth, not being tied up in unnecessary red tape’.  Such as keeping their employees safe, obviously.

The end of ‘strict liability’ drives a coach and horses through the health and safety legislation by undermining the very principle of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act:  that there should be minimum requirements to guarantee better health and safety protection for workers.

Strict liability, whereby companies are liable for injuries regardless of negligence if certain health and safety rules are breached, is imposed in a very narrow set of circumstances.  That I am unable to explain what they are isn’t really the point, because fundamentally it is about unfairness.

Removing strict liability means an injured worker can’t just base their claim on a breach of health and safety regulations as they can now.  Instead they would have to rely on common law negligence.  This means, for example, proving not only a machine was unsafe but that the employer knew or should have known about it and that it was the employers’ fault.

Even if the worker could prove all this, it isn’t going to be cheap and could cost more than the value of their claim.  It is also bound to make cases more drawn out, creating a veritable lawyers’ playground but doing nothing for employment relations or productivity.

Maybe it does seem unfair for an employer to be liable for an accident even if using ‘reasonable care’ couldn’t have prevented it, but not half as unfair as it is on an injured employee who can’t get compensation even though they are entirely blameless and using equipment provided by their employer.  The risk is created by, and so should be borne by, the employer and not the employee.

Personally I find it impossible to get my head around the idea that responsible businesses up and down the land are wasting time and money on over-compliance with health and safety regulations because they are afraid of being sued.  I am quite sure most of them take the safety of their workers extremely seriously and all the government is doing is handing a ‘get-out’ clause to those who are somewhat less than scrupulous.

Including, it might seem, itself.  The Court of Appeal recently ruled that the Ministry of Defence has a duty to provide safe and adequate equipment to serving troops and failing to do so can result in it being found liable if soldiers are injured or killed.  I am shocked this was even up for debate.  Fortunately for the government, wounded servicemen will be affected by the health and safety changes just like any other employee.

It all looks a bit cockeyed.  Rather than making it more difficult for injured workers to get compensation to pay for lost earnings, medical care and rehabilitation, it makes more sense to allow employers to sue third parties, such as manufacturers or suppliers, where neither the employer or employee is at fault.

Or instead of trying to address nebulous perceptions and impressions and tinkering about on the sly with long-standing, valued, tried and tested primary legislation, the government could get some actual hard evidence about the problem and then go about trying to educate businesses and the public about health and safety.

It could even, as the independent Löfstedt report on health and safety recommended, start a proper debate about risk in society and how it should be regulated.  But sadly it appears ministers have bought hook line and sinker into the ‘health and safety gone mad’ lies peddled by the insurance industry and the tabloid press.  In doing so they are in danger of dragging us backwards ‘to the days of Blake’s dark satanic mills’.