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Aug 26 / Charm

Legal Industry Sceptical About New Mediation Scheme

The government is introducing a new scheme to provide couples undergoing separation with a free initial mediation session. The government hopes this will encourage more couples to reach agreements without taking their disputes into the courtroom, but legal professionals remain sceptical about the impact it will make.

Family Justice Minister Simon Hughes announced the scheme earlier this week. It forms part of a string of government efforts to promote mediation, stretching back to the controversial cuts to family legal aid in April 2013.

The government aims to promote mediation as a quicker, cheaper alternative to settling disputes in court. According to Hughes, “We know mediation works and we want more people to make use of it.” The government has also issued figures which, it claims, show the efficacy of mediation. 70% of couples who undergo mediation, the Ministry of Justice said, reach an agreement without the need for the courts. Almost two thirds of those whose disputes relate to children manage to settle their differences after a single session, the Ministry claimed.

However, so far the government’s efforts to encourage the use of mediation by separating couples have fallen decidedly flat. This was seen as son as legal aid cuts took effect, at exactly the time the government hoped couples would seek out mediation as an alternative. Contrary to the hopes of the government, the number of couples turning to mediation actually fell. Six months after the cuts hit, less than half as many couples were using mediation as an alternative to settling their disputes in court. Over this six month period, the overall number of couples seeking out mediation services fell by 51%.

This fact may be down to the fact that fewer couples are now turning to lawyers. Unable to access legal aid to fund professional assistance, they instead proceed to court as litigants in person without stopping to consult a legal professional. Previously, lawyers were often the ones who made their clients aware of mediation and recommended the process, so by taking lawyers out of the equation the government may have caused awareness to fall. This has not been helped by the fact that, as critics of the cuts have been quick to observe, the government has made comparatively few efforts to make couples aware of the mediation schemes they have been introducing.

A number of legal professionals have expressed their doubts about the latest scheme. Resolution chair Jo Edwards pointed out that the scheme is limited to cases where at least one partner already qualifies for legal aid, and this is likely to limit its usefulness.

Jun 3 / Charm

SRA Says Diversity Rising Too Slowly

Lawyers are becoming more diverse, but according to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) the increase is not happening fast enough. The SRA published statistics today which showed that the increase in diversity is indeed a slow one.

This year saw an increase in the proportion of solicitors belonging to black and minority ethnic (BME) groups, but that increase was a mere 0.5%. The SRA’s diversity monitoring statistics also showed a rise in the proportion of solicitors that are female over the last three years, but labelled this only “gradual.”

There are currently 136,081 practicing solicitors in the UK, of which 85% are white and only 15% belong to BME groups. Specifically, 8% are Asian in ethnicity, 2% are black, 1% of Chinese heritage, 1% of mixed ethnicity, and 2% belong to other groups. Black and ethnic minority solicitors are more often found in small firms. 61% of them are sole practitioners or belong to firms with only 2-4 partners, and just 10% can be found in firms with 81 partners or more.

These trends are reflected quite closely among partners. 89% of partners are white and 11% are from black and ethnic minority groups. The latter category breaks down as 7% of Asian heritage, 2% black, 0.5% Chinese in ethnicity, 0.5% of mixed heritage, and 1% other.

One area in which the partner population departed markedly from the trends seen in the population of practicing solicitors at large is in the proportion of women. Women make up 47% of solicitors altogether, but only 27% of partners are female. This suggests that while the number of women entering the profession is improving and approaching the roughly 50/50 split that would reflect the population at large, there is still marked inequality in terms of career progression.

Women in the legal profession are also found predominantly among younger groups. 62% of women practicing as solicitors are under 40, compared to just 39% of male solicitors.

Richard Collins, executive director for strategy at the SRA, spoke of a “relatively slow pace of change” within the legal profession. However, he did not feel that this was the result of firms actively discriminating against women or BME solicitors. He said that “Patterns and ways of doing things have built up over the years. It is not something the SRA can solve by ourselves… Rather firms need to accept the information and put in a lot of senior management time to change it.”

Apr 28 / Charm

Law Students to Help Divorcing Couples?

New proposals from Justice Minister Simon Hughes call for law students and trainee lawyers to be called in to help separating couples with the process of divorce. Hughes suggested that students and trainees could “talk through the issues,” “sort out the clutter in their minds” and generally “hold the hands” of couples as they worked through the divorce process.

It is reported that ministers are forming plans for a potential advice centre network. Staffed by students and trainee lawyers, they would specialise in giving guidance to Litigant in Persons (LiPs) before they appear in court as part of their divorce proceedings.

On paper, the scheme is a timely one. Recent cuts to legal aid have affected a very large number of family court cases, including divorces. A significant portion of cases that appear before family courts now involve no professional legal representation for either party, and many struggle to afford specialist advice. The government has made it mandatory to first consider mediation, which is cheaper, easier and generally more amicable, but many cases still have to resort to the courts to settle disputes.

However, within the legal profession there are many voices speaking up to suggest that unqualified advice such as this will not prove to be an adequate substitute or even a particularly effective system in practice. Many students and trainees feel that they would not be confident in giving such important legal advice to people without it being checked by a qualified and experienced professional, especially when it could have such a profound impact on someone’s personal life.

Many solicitors echo this sentiment when thinking back to their own days as trainees. For example, Hart Brown NQ solicitor Danielle Collett-Bruce said she would have felt “out of [her] depth.” She also added that “experienced practitioners are still trying to understand the changes and I think it is unfair to expect young lawyers, whether in practice or not, to try to give a good level of advice.”

Jo Edwards, chair of Resolution, also felt that such a scheme would not be adequate. While acknowledging that “any help that can be provided is not to be sniffed at,” she also said that “the reality is this is complex stuff that needs specialist’s advice from qualified professionals.” Resolution, a national association of family legal professionals, has itself recently been tackling the issue of couples who struggle to afford professional help when going through divorce. They have teamed up with a major credit provider to offer manageable loans to fund legal advice and representation.

Feb 27 / Charm

Law Commission Calls for Pre-nups to Become Legally Binding

The Law Commission has proposed that pre-nuptial agreements gain legal status within England and Wales. The possibility has been widely welcomed by family lawyers.

The issue has been talked about for some months, and it is now looking like any relevant reforms that result from the discussions may soon come into effect.  The Law Commission’s recent report calling for the move is the result of consultations stretching out over three years.

Currently, pre-nuptial agreements can be treated by courts as a factor in deciding how to assign assets in divorce cases, but they are not legally binding and have no set-in-stone status in law. The commission’s report includes a draft of a bill which would change this, allow agreements that are legally binding to be made by couples who are getting married. In the event of their marriage failing, this would result in much greater security for both partners regarding the way their assets will be disposed.

If a bill in line with the Law Commission’s draft should be passed, courts will have no authority to deviate from the terms of qualifying pre-nups when disposing of a couple’s assets as long as the terms provide adequately for the needs of both partners and for any children.

In order to qualify under the terms of the draft bill contained in the report, a pre-nuptial agreement must meet the following criteria:

  • It must be signed at least 28 days before the wedding takes place.
  • It must not involve fraud, misrepresentation, or undue influence.
  • It must contain a statement that the couple understand that the agreement is binding and cannot normally be altered by courts in the event of divorce.
  • Both partners must have received legal advice, and undertaken full disclosure.

If any of these conditions are not met, the agreement will not be entirely voided. However, it will not be strictly binding and there will be greater discretion for courts to deviate from the terms when disposing of assets.

James Carroll, co-chair of the family law committee of the Law Society, stressed that this does not make all pre-nuptial agreements into documents that will be absolutely binding in every circumstance. He clarified: “Parties can choose to opt out of sharing non-matrimonial property, but they will not be able to contract out of providing for each other’s needs.”

Many lawyers predict that there will now be a surge in demand for pre-nups, although opinions differ as the to likely extent of this.

Jan 30 / Charm

UK Surpasses New York as International Centre for Legal Services

According to a recent report, the UK has surpassed New York to become the world-leading international legal services centre. TheCityUK’s Legal Services 2014 report says that New York remains the home of the world’s largest market for domestic law, but the UK is now the biggest centre of international law.

Approximately 7% of revenues for law firms around the world are taken by UK companies. This makes the UK the largest market in Europe by some distance, and the largest in the world by a smaller margin. The UK is also home to three of the world’s five largest law firms when judged by number of employees. Alternatively, if judged by total revenue, the UK houses four of the world’s ten biggest firms. The UK currently also houses offices of more than 200 foreign legal firms.

In 2012, legal services contributed £20.4 billion to the UK economy, accounting for 1.5% of the country’s total GDP. Gross revenues for UK law firms were £38.5 billion in the 2012-2013 financial year, showing growth of 5% in this period.

Another claim the report contained is that London is the world leader in dispute resolution. This applies collectively to al forms of dispute, such as mediation, arbitration and litigation. Over 19,000 commercial and civil disputes were resolved in London in 2012, with approximately 4,700 of these being international. Furthermore, out of all corporate arbitrations across the globe, 40% of governing law is English law and London is widely viewed as the preferred arbitration centre.

According to Desmond Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society: “This report reinforces that the UK continues to lead the way. To remain the destination of choice for legal services, we need to invest in infrastructure, invest in skills and reduce the regulatory burden.”

Furthermore, large law firms in London are likely to have larger, more extensive global networks than their counterparts in other parts of the world. This is perhaps linked to a claim in the report that the current slow rates of economic growth in established markets is likely to drive law firms towards overseas expansion to generate fees.

Nicholas Lavender QC, chair of the Bar Council, said: “These figures demonstrate how important the UK’s legal services sector is to our economy and to the economic recovery.” Lavender went on to say that “English law remains one of our most significant exports and continues to ensure the UK plays a leading role in global commerce.”

 

Dec 28 / Charm

Pessimistic Prognosis for Medical Negligence Lawyers

There have been changes to civil litigation funding and costs that are worth noting for the clinical negligence sector.

The reforms made by Lord Justice Jackson’s reforms have affected practitioners in the field, as well as their clients, although they were particularly aimed at the personal injury sector and not so much at medical negligence. Now, after eight months, those changes to civil litigation funding and costs in England and Wales start to have serious impact on clients with less valuable claims.

After legal aid for clinical negligence claims have been removed, firms’ cash flows have also come under pressure, following the removal of legal aid for clinical negligence claims. In order to make up for lost revenue after Jackson’s reforms, personal injury firms are branching out into clinical negligence and competition rises up.

Most of Lord Jackson’s recommendations were put into effect on 1 April by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, flanked by new Civil Procedure Rules. Those changes include the removal of legal aid for clinical negligence and the removal of fee agreements where in case of a win, the losing side has to pay the success fee. In the Post-Jackson rules, claimants will now pay it out of their damages. Furthermore, before the winning claimant had the right to recover after-the-event litigation insurance premiums in their entirety However, now only the insurance premium for expert fees can be recouped from the losing defendant. Finally, there would be much stricter control on the amount being spent by claiming to bring medical negligence claims to an English court, in accordance to the new costs and case management rules. Budgets will have to be set before the start of the court process because if costs exceed the value of the claim, they might be considered disproportionate, and therefore disallowed or reduced.

The Mitchell case remains the strongest signal yet of the courts’ very tough line on compliance with these new costs budgeting rules. The case was heard before the Court of Appeal on 7 November. Clinical negligence lawyers did not have a lot of hope but still were eagerly awaiting the final decision.  The claimant lawyers in Mitchell were heavily penalised for failing to file their costs budget on time, with their costs reduced to court fees alone and relief from sanctions denied. After all, this pessimism was justified, because the appeal was dismissed.

Oct 29 / admin

Ministry of Defence Litigations Could Paralyse UK Military

Over £130million going towards litigation cases against the Ministry of Defence can paralyse the UK’s defences, according to a liberal research group.

According to Policy Exchange, the continuous legal assault against the Ministry of Defence, with 5,827 legal cases in 2012 to 2013, can instantly take up all the resources of the military. According to legal professionals, the commonly used “weapon” in legal challenges pertaining to military action and personnel activities was the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ECHR, a law passed in September 1953 and the Human Rights Act in 1998 allows individuals to file in domestic courts complaints and compensation for damages caused by any military in the area.

The UK was both involved in the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. The legal assault increased in volume right after the wars in both countries. Combat Immunity, as long as the Law of Armed Conflict is observed, protected the military from any form of complaint during the conflict. However, because legal issues of negligence and duty of care must be kept in check with military action, the Military faced plenty of legal attacks.

According to military law experts, no personnel is above the law, but they must guarantee to limit many of their own rights. Their report recommended that the government must effectively define Combat Immunity to help military personnel take decisions without fear of violating laws. They must also exempt the Ministry of Defence from the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, which is also a common “weapon” of legal assaulters.

Other recommendations said that the United Kingdom must put down the European Convention on Human Rights during military operations and that legal aid should be removed from lawsuits.

However, the plan is still in contest because many legal representatives pointed out that civilians have a right to complain against military groups who had committed grave offences and the laws give them the capability to do so.

According to them, some legal cases are not meant to get compensation or gains from cases, but rather cases filed by family members to ensure the safety of their sons and daughters who have gone to war.

Sep 8 / admin

U-turn on legal aid tender plans

Chris Grayling the Justice Secretary has declared an end to plans which proposed to award contracts for legal aid to the lowest bidder in an aim to minimize the bill the government has to shell out on legal aid. In a newspaper interview the Justice Secretary stated that the change is due to a deal which has been agreed between himself and the Law Society.

Adversaries of the initial idea had been opposed it as they believed that such a policy will inevitably have a damaging effect on the criminal justice system in England and Wales. Despite this change of heart regarding the way contracts are awarded the remainder of the cuts in the legal aid sector are due to go ahead as planned.

In a speech to the House of Commons the Justice Secretary revealed that households who have over £3,000 in monthly disposable income will not be eligible for legal aid as well as no longer providing such funding to prisoners. The cuts would also affect immigrants who have been residents in the United Kingdom for less than a year as they will be denied legal aid in civil suits.

In searching for ways to minimize the £2bn yearly bill by £350m which the government pays out in legal aid, ministers had proposed the introduction of price competitive tendering. Clive Coleman the BBC’s legal correspondent labeled the proposals as controversial and stated that the quality of legal services is bound to be effected by the winner of the ‘race to the bottom’.

Although the bidding format for legal aid contracts has been abolished the remainder of the money saving plans will go ahead in a push by the government to save money from the UK legal system which has been labeled as the costliest in the world.

‘Factory mentality’

The current numbers of legal aid providers in the United Kingdom stands at 1,600 with potential for more should companies meet the minimum quality criterions. Plans by the government will put a cap on the contracts for solicitors working in police stations which will alone save 17.5% nationwide.

Moreover, a committee will be assembled to seek new ideas on how minute hearings can be avoided by resolving them over e-mail or video link. The final draft of proposals will be subject to a 6 week consultation period before the plans come into force.

Aug 16 / admin

Law Commission urges change to fitness to plead

The Law Commission has recommended that the defence of insanity should be abolished due to that fact that it no longer functions as it was designed to back in the 19th century. The Government was informed by lawyers responsible for suggesting reform that mentally incapable people are often subject to trial in court due to the decayed and no longer in date rules on fitness. Moreover, a recommendation to scrap the defence of insanity has also been made to the government due to it too being out of date and misplaced in the law and that those convicted persistently avoid its use.

The warning was made by the Commission which holds the responsibility to keep an eye on the law in Britain and make recommendations where necessary as well as think of new ways to keep legislation up to date and in line with modern society. The alert by the Law Commission will force government ministers to conduct a review into the matter in order to put a stop to unjust trials and prevent further mentally incapable defendants from having to be sent to prison where they are unable to cope with the environment. The law on unfitness to plead intends to shield defendants who are regarded as unfit to stand trial and to adequately understand the process of a courtroom hearing. Currently the Law Commission believes that the threshold regarding the mental fitness of a defendant to be fit to stand trial is set at an unreasonably high level which inevitably means that a large number of defendants are tried as normal when they should be exempted.

Moreover, pleading insanity as a form of defence looks at the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the committed offence as opposed to the time of the trial. On average, in England and Wales there are thirty insanity pleas which succeed annually in the crown courts. In a published paper which is a discussion prior to the final report which will be compiled the Law Commission stated that both tests for insanity and the unfitness to plead have been formed on concepts which emerged in the 19th century and that neither of which has kept up with modern day developments in medical evidence and what it seen as acceptable in society.

Jul 20 / admin

UK Anti-Terror Law Violates Human Right to Privacy

Watch groups condemn an anti-terror law that could have any person entering the United Kingdom have their mobile phone data seized by UK border police for any reason. Authorities have the legal right to get personal information and keep it for as long as necessary.

The tip about the law came from Judge David Anderson QC, who published it in a blog post that also presents his concerns about the government’s powers. He will formally present his opinion with his report on the parliament Wednesday.

UK border police are also allowed by the law to detain UK citizens for up to nine hours and their possession could be kept in police custody for up to a week. Information from mobile phones and other mobile devices could be downloaded and stored by police at an unspecified length of time.

Judge Anderson points out that he finds the powers in Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act of 2000 “very sweeping”. It allows police to stop, examine and search passengers at ports, airports and international rail terminals at any time and they could detain the passenger for questioning.

The independent judge is quite concerned about authorities exercising the right without having to explain their suspicions and the unspecified length of time a passenger’s confidential information could be kept.

Several watch groups have also called foul against the UK anti-terror law. Privacy International had pointed out that if authorities insist on keeping passengers’ information for more than a week, it is already a violation of the passengers’ personal privacies and the law is “extremely intrusive”. Human rights advocates said the new law could potentially expose the “soft” data through the Internet, which might lead to identity thefts. PI

Police practices of stop-and-question for anti-terror had led to police stopping millions of UK citizens in the streets or public areas and only 9% of arrests are being made.

Judge Anderson calls for more safeguards to protect travellers and their confidential information. He said the law can protect the UK citizens and its government, but there is a need to give a reason and definition to the powers given by the Terrorism Act of 2000.