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News in brief - 19 May 2017

Legal education, divorce proceedings, and legal technology

19 May 2017

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Legal education

One of the duties of judges is to keep the law up to date and the legal system relevant to businesses in a changing environment under the influence of global trends, the Lord Chief Justice has said.

This, Lord Thomas said, involved a legal education system producing rounded lawyers with a sound understanding of the law and of commerce.

Pointing to the SRA’s SQE plans, the Lord Chief Justice said: ‘It must begin at law school. It requires that law students be given the best possible legal education so that they enter the profession with a sound grounding in the law and its practical application, as well as the ethical responsibilities of lawyers.’

‘Teaching excellence is something that we all have a stake in seeing maintained and improved,’ Lord Thomas said in the first Jill Poole Memorial Lecture. ‘And at a time when the professions are, once again, reviewing the approach to be taken to legal education and training, it is absolutely essential that nothing is done to dilute the quality of a very broadly based legal education and law schools as the centres of excellence, not mere training grounds for the profession. Quality should be increased both in terms of teaching of law as an academic subject and as a practical subject.’

Building bridges between law schools and the commercial world would help prospective commercial lawyers develop a grounding in the principles underpinning the law and understand the context in which it is applied. ‘I would hope that one way in which new lawyers can gain such early exposure is through the development of greater and closer links between universities, law firms and commercial businesses,’ he said.

Family business

The president of the Family Division has called for a complete separation of divorce proceedings from financial proceedings that would allow the courts to focus on financial claims.

Writing in his 17th View, Sir James Munby said the divorce process itself was largely administrative and bureaucratic with limited judicial involvement unless the petition is contested.

Already a pilot has started to test the de-linking of the financial remedy applications from divorce proceedings, which the president said was ‘going well’.

Procedural reforms could be achieved simply by changes to the Family Procedure Rules and practice directions, including the introduction of an online divorce process, which Sir James said should proceed ‘as fast as sensibly possible’.

Only substantive divorce law would require primary legislation, the president added, urging the government to put no-fault divorce on its promised family law reform agenda. ‘We can only wait and see,’ he noted. ‘The lamentable history of procrastination suggests it would be unwise to assume speedy progress.’

Additional reforms should include a shared jurisdiction between the family court, the Chancery Division, and the county court for dealing with Inheritance Act disputes and TOLATA claims.

Ready for impact

Technology will start having a noticeable impact on law firms in the coming five to ten years, according to accountancy firm BDO.

Writing in BDO’s report The Impact of Technology, head of professional services Nick Carter-Pegg said law firms were only now starting to catch up with the way their clients work.

Based on a survey polling managing and senior partners at 50 leading law firms, the report found that more than 80 per cent of participants regarded technology as the factor most likely to have the greatest impact on their firm, with 94 per cent considering technology a strategic priority for their business.

The larger firms were more likely to pioneer new technologies to stay ahead of the competition but just as many said they wanted to observe the competition before investing in new tech solutions. ‘Being a “fast-follower” is potentially seen to be a strategically smarter move than investing large capital in new technology while the market is still trying to understand the changing client demands,’ the report noted.

Just under half of those canvassed (49 per cent) said cultural change was the biggest barrier to innovation.

Goodbye, Heaney Watson

Respected Northwest family firm Heaney Watson was closed down by the SRA on 15 May.

In a statement, the firm said it had faced growing financial difficulties and had been in discussion with the regulator over the past few weeks about an orderly closure.

Heaney Watson was set up by former Goodmans partners Liza Watson, Simon Heaney, and Tracy Winstanley. The firm had a legal aid contract, and had offices in Liverpool and Manchester. Winstanley, head of the firm’s mediation practice, was named family mediator legal aid lawyer of the year in 2016.

Stephensons Solicitors has been appointed as intervening agent, and client files are being transferred to several firms in the region.

The firm is the subject of a winding-up petition which is due to be heard later this month. Its website is currently unavailable.

Blue sky

‘There has been blue-sky thinking, but not enough practical, real-world problem-solving,’ criminal lawyers have said in an open letter calling on the government to address urgent deficiencies in the criminal justice system.

Criminal Bar Association chairman Francis Fitzgibbon QC said a 26 per cent cut in spending over the past five years had been ‘brutal and counterproductive’. Cases are less well investigated by the police and less well prepared by the CPS, and victims and defendants less well looked after, he said. ‘For years the criminal justice system has been held together by the professionalism and goodwill of judges, court staff and lawyers, but the supply of sticking plaster has run out.’

One particular concern comes from the rise in historic sex abuse cases, which lawyers say the system will be unable to cope with. ‘Violent crime is rising and the system is dealing with a tsunami of highly sensitive sex cases, which are set to occupy it for years to come – it is imperative that enough investment is put in, across the sector, to ensure that the rights of victims and defendants are upheld.’

Chat with LeO

The Legal Ombudsman has launched an online livechat service to make it easier for legal services users to get in touch about disputes with solicitors, conveyancers, and other providers.

Livechat is available on LeO’s website and allows users to send instant messages, which LeO said ‘will be particularly useful for those unable to talk over the phone during the day’. It has already been used to provide advice and support on disputes with claims management companies (CMCs).

Chief legal ombudsman Kathryn Stone said: ‘Modernising our systems with Live Chat should fit better into people’s busy lives and make it much easier for consumers to seek support about poor service from the legal industry and get the advice they need. People often don’t know where to turn when they have issues with legal providers, but we want them to know that we are here for them online as well as just a phone call or email away.’

LeO was set up by the Office for Legal Complaints under the Legal Services Act 2007 to investigate service complaints against regulated legal services providers and CMCs. Last year, it accepted 7,223 legal complaints and 2,290 CMC complaints.

Livechat is part of LeO’s new three-year plan to improve the ease of consumers making and resolving complaints.

Fake fee notes

A barrister has been disbarred for failing to pay more than £4,000 to his chambers in respect of 32 public access cases and suspended for three months for fabricating a fake fee note to his instructing solicitor and for failing to issue care letters to 28 public access clients.

The Bar Standards Board tribunal found that Peter Richard Collins dishonestly failed to inform his chambers for more than two years of the fees he had received for work on 32 public access cases undertaken as a barrister working in the chambers.

Collins, who qualified in 1993, also failed to pay his chambers the £4,236 which he was legally liable to pay in respect of his work on these cases.

The tribunal also suspended the 50 year-old-barrister for three months each on two separate charges, to run concurrently. One charge related to issuing a fee note to his instructing solicitor which purported to be by or on behalf of his chambers when it was not.

The other charge related to failing to issue client care letters or equivalent correspondence to 28 public access clients, in breach of BSB rules.

Commenting on the order to disbar, director of professional conduct Sara Jagger said: ‘Mr Collins’s dishonest conduct in not paying his share of chambers’ fees over a substantial period of time is incompatible with membership of the Bar. The tribunal’s decision to disbar reflects this.’

County courts

The number of county court judgments against consumers rose to the highest level in over a decade during the first quarter of 2017, according to figures released by Registry Trust.

In Q1, there were 298,901 debt judgments registered against consumers in England and Wales. Rising 35 per cent on the same period in 2016, it is the highest figure for a single quarter in over a decade.

For every 1,000 people, 5.16 received a judgment, compared with 3.85 the year before.

The average value of a consumer CCJ fell for the eighth consecutive year, decreasing 17 per cent on last year to a historic low of £1,495. By comparison the average value of a judgment in Q1 2008 stood at £3,662.

The number of judgments marked as satisfied during the first three months of 2017 was 11.83 per cent.

This contrasts with the 13.33 per cent satisfied in the first quarter of 2016.

In the High Court, only 35 judgments were registered against consumers in Q1 2017, the lowest total number for a single quarter on record. The average value of a consumer judgment in the High Court fell 44 per cent year on year to £446,308.

The total value of debt judgments against consumers in all courts during the first quarter of 2017 was £462.5m.

Discount rate

Kennedys has urged the government to bring the discount rate into the ‘real world’.

Responding to the MoJ consultation, the firm stressed the ‘strength of feeling’ among insurers that the legal basis for setting the discount rate should be changed to reflect how claimants invest their awards.

‘To ensure accuracy, the Lord Chancellor should set the discount rate based on how claimants actually invest their damages, i.e. in a mixed portfolio of investments. Claimants should not be assumed to be “special investors” but “ordinary prudent investors”. To do otherwise results in over-compensation,’ the firm said.

Mark Burton, Kennedys partner, said: ‘The Lord Chancellor’s decision to introduce a negative discount rate demonstrates how flawed the current methodology is, when in the real world claimants are achieving positive returns from low-risk investment strategies.

‘That has to change if the government is to balance the importance of fully compensating injured people with the profound difficulties that the recent changes have caused compensators in both the private and public sectors, as seen by a string of stock market warnings.

‘The enormous increase in claims costs caused by the new rate risks a number of adverse outcomes. Will we see the loss of any potential benefit from other measures aimed at reducing whiplash claims and motor insurance premiums as a result? Indeed, might premiums now continue to rise instead?’

 

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Education & Training Technology Personal injury Family