For the second week in a row Sunday Law Review starts with a sour note on personal injury (PI). The Association of British Insurers have revealed that legal fees to settle personal injury claims after motor accidents are costing the UK consumers a total of £2.4 million a day. The introduction of a fast track scheme to settle lower value premiums in 2010 had led to significantly quicker compensation payouts, but the fixed costs in the process remain high leading to higher premiums for motorists, businesses, local authorities and the NHS. Expansion is the key to survival for the specialist PI firms as a Legalweek report suggests. In light of legislative changes such as Alternative Business Structure (ABS), referral fee bans and plans to extend the Road Traffic Accident (RTA) fixed cost scheme, law firms would be operating under squeezed margins, where survival depends on the capacity to handle more cases.
As the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) revealed that 33 ABS applications have already been submitted, the Portal Group, a financial services organisation, has submitted its proposal to add a legal practice arm to its portfolio. Goodwin Knight Law, the proposed venture, is initially aimed as a personal injury practice. ABS is set to remain an attractive proposition for external investors as more non-legal businesses are expressing interest in setting up legal wings. A private equity firm, Sovereign Capital has become the latest to outline its intention to invest in law. Having acquired the employment advisory firm Drury PSM last year, Sovereign is said to be looking into the legal sector.
The repercussion of the present fiscal crisis had been a proliferation of payday lenders. The National Debtline, a debt advice charity has revealed numerous cases where moneylenders had acted against the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) regulations on causing debtors public embarrassment. Earlier this week, Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly announced a major overhaul of the bailiff industry to stamp out rogue practices. The Ministry of Justice would launch a consultation setting out how ethical activity should be enshrined in law so bailiffs can continue to enforce the payment of debts and fines within a set code of conduct.
The legal profession was labelled as socially exclusive in the 2009 government report on Fair Access to Professions. It would appear that family connections do go some way towards getting one’s foot in the door as the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg had personally revealed that such connections had secured internships helping to launch his career. Late last year, Whitehall lawyers had expressed concern over employers breaking national minimum wage laws over unpaid interns.
While the question of family connections, social mobility and unpaid internships rage on, the Law Society Gazette has recently stated that ‘work experience is now seen as critical to securing a training contract’. For many in the profession, the first step to starting a legal career had consisted of studying law at university. Yet, David Allen Green, perhaps the most famous UK legal blogger has questioned the need for a law degree. “A law degree can even be worse than useless. For the wannabe criminal lawyer, a law degree hides the fact that almost all cases will depend on the evidence and points of procedure, and not on what is said in Clarkson and Keating.” While Green’s views are not universal, this column is pleased to note the Legalweek report on the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer teaming up with University College London (UCL) to launch a bursary scheme for law students. The scheme would sponsor two law students from less privileged backgrounds to receive £10,000, in addition to work experience and a guaranteed training contract interview with the firm.
The family law arbitration scheme has been launched by the newly-formed Institute of Family Law Arbitrators (IFLA) to resolve family disputes over finance or property. The panel of arbitrators consist of retired judges and experienced family practitioners from across the country. The non-profit organisation has been created by family lawyers’ group Resolution, the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (CIArb) and the Family Law Bar Association, in association with the Centre for Child and Family Law Reform. Nigel Shepherd, one of the arbitrators had said that ‘arbitration is more flexible and faster than getting a decision from the courts.’ IFLA chairman, Lord Falconer added that ‘at a time when there is a need to find solutions in family disputes outside the courtroom, it is a logical next step to offer arbitration as another means of doing so.’ Carl Gardener writing in Guardian Law on this issue makes a very interesting point about the possibility of religious bodies to set up similar schemes and cited the example of the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal deciding commercial disputes according to Islamic Sharia law. Although he does concede that those concerned with religious threats to equality under the law may feel differently.
In a landmark decision Mr Justice Teare has permitted the use of Facebook, the social networking site to be used to serve legal claims in commercial cases. The Lawyer reports that the law firm Stephenson Harwood requested permission to serve the claim via Facebook. Clyde & Co and Memery Crystal are the other advisory firms. A High Court judge had previously allowed Twitter to be used where the defendant could only be located through his Twitter handle name. Facebook has been widely used to serve claims in Australia and New Zealand, and had been used a handful of times in Britain. However, this would be the first use of such a medium in commercial cases.
A limiting order had been granted to a landlord whose property is rented by relatives of Abu Qatada. Intense and very intrusive media scrutiny had led to seeking such an order. High Court judge Mrs Justice Dobbs made an order preventing publication of the landlord's name earlier in February, after a lawyer made an application by telephone. After a High Court hearing, Mr Justice Tugendhat has now ruled that the order should continue. Christopher Tappin, who has been extradited to the US had cited cases such as Qatada in claiming that he had fewer rights than a terrorist. The retired businessman is wanted in the US for allegedly selling batteries for Iranian missiles. Tappin was being flown from Heathrow Airport to El Paso, Texas, escorted by US marshals. The Prime Minister David Cameron has hinted that the cabinet battle over the controversial UK-US treaty, which underpins the extraditions such as Christopher Tappin, is no academic matter. In the next fortnight or so the Supreme Court would be deciding whether Wikileaks' founder Julian Assange should be sent to Sweden on a European arrest warrant. While in the next few months, the home secretary, Theresa May, will make a final decision on the medical evidence as to whether Gary McKinnon, the computer hacker with Asperger's syndrome, should be sent to stand trial in the US.
This column has noted a distinct rise in litigious clashes between the sacred and the secular. A Christian care worker has lost her employment tribunal case against Merton Council. Celestina Mba had claimed that she was forced to leave her job as a result of being forced to work on Sundays, an act of intolerance towards her Christian faith. The council successfully argued its case of the need to provide care for children over the weekend. The Christian Legal Centre (CLC) has said it will consider appealing against the tribunal decision. After the High Court declared a Devon council’s prayers prior to meetings illegal, the government has decided to activate the Localism Act, which would allow councils to hold such meetings. Earlier in February, the Court of Appeal upheld a Judge’s ruling that a devoutly Christian couple, Peter and Hazelmary Bull, had discriminated against Martin Hall and Steven Preddy on grounds of sexual orientation when they refused them a double-bedded room at their hotel near Penzance. For many years, Mr and Mrs Bull had restricted the use of double-bedded rooms at their hotel to married couples. The clash between the Church and state is likely to continue as a government minister Lynne Featherstone stated that the government was entitled to introduce same-sex marriages as a change for the better. The comments came as a response to the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey’s claim that the ‘Church owned marriage’.
In light of the Apple iPad sale ban case being suspended and the courts favouring Apple in the Motorole slide-to-unlock patent suit, my two recommended articles for the week are on law and the large technology firms. The first article, ‘Judge may postpone Oracle-Google trial in light of patent re-examinations’ is from the blogsite FOSS Patents. The second is James. B Stewart’s article ‘Confronting a law of limits’, published in the New York Times, analysing the rise of Apple as an organisation and what such rises represents.
In the international law front, two potentially lucrative markets is about to be opened up to foreign law firms. The Indian High Court has ruled that International law firms should not be prevented from visiting India to advise local clients on foreign law. Singapore is also planning to open up its legal market by allowing overseas firms to take stakes in local law practices and share profits.
I thank the legal representatives, journalists, web editors and publications I have cited, and linked, for allowing me to compose this week’s Sunday Law Review. Readers are welcome to highlight any critical omissions, offer factual corrections or discuss the issues raised in my review.