comparison
The launch of a price comparison site for legal services is to take place in August, it has been revealed. The site is to be called The Law Superstore, and has currently secured the cooperation of 150 firms who are willing to have their prices listed.

The site will allow users to easily compare prices for 130 different kinds of legal service in much the same way they are able to compare things like telecoms companies and insurance providers. They will be able to compare not just the costs of these services but other important criteria such as quality ratings and location.

The site earns revenue using a similar business model to comparison sites operating in other markets. Firms will pay The Law Superstore commission for each user who goes on to do business with them through the site once the work in question has been fully agreed. Firms do not pay anything to be included in the rankings in the first instance, and the comparison service is also free for users who are looking for a legal service provider.

The development of the site is headed by Matthew Brigges, formerly the chief executive of Minster Law and founder of corporate ABS Brilliant Law. Briggs said that the 150 firms who are on board with the site at this initial stage were specifically chosen by the project as legal service providers who take a progressive approach to their marketing and service provision. They include names such as London firm McMillan Williams, Yorkshire-based Blacks, and Manchester practice Express Solicitors.

The Law Superstore claims to be the most ambitious attempt to create an online comparison service for the legal sector ever attempted, and aims to bring about significant change in the way people shop for legal support. According to Briggs: “The overwhelming support we have received from these prestigious law firms reinforces our belief that we are at the start of a revolution in the legal sector that will change the way businesses and consumers buy legal services in the future.”

The development of the site was first announced last year and, according to Briggs, was met with doubts from some quarters. The comparison platform, which has received substantial financial backing from major private equity firms, is now almost ready for launch, with Briggs claiming that the project has “left behind” the doubters. The Law Supermarket will begin operating on 1st August 2016.

Professor Jane Ireland, who wrote a report condemning the quality of expert witnesses testifying in the family courts, is to face a disciplinary hearing. The hearing will relate to alleged misconduct and faulty conclusions when researching and writing the report.

Professor Ireland, a forensic psychologist with the University of Central Lancashire, wrote the report “Evaluating Expert Witness Psychological Reports: Exploring Quality.” This report was published in 2012, and proved influential in a subsequent push for improved standards of expert testimony in the family courts. The report said that a fifth of those authoring reports for use as expert testimony in the family courts did not have appropriate qualifications, and two thirds of expert witnesses were classed as “poor” according to the standards of the report. In her report, Professor Ireland also spoke of “challenges for the courts” posed by the lack of expert psychological witnesses involved in clinical practice.

However, the standards of research on display in Professor Ireland’s report, as well as her own conduct, have since been called into question. These allegations have now been deemed sufficient to warrant a disciplinary hearing before the Health and Care Professions Council’s (HCPC) conduct and competence committee. Professor Ireland is claimed to have drawn up conclusions in her support which the data gathered by her research did not fully support. Furthermore, it is alleged that other psychologists who made complaints about the quality of her research were coerced into withdrawing those complaints through the threat of legal action.

The charge sheet relating to the hearing claims that one of the key headline conclusions of the report, the idea that around 20% of “experts” providing testimony for the family courts are not properly qualified, is not actually justified by Professor Ireland’s data. Ireland is therefore accused of having “‘presented unsubstantial conclusions from the report for publication in a national newspaper on 13 March 2012 and on a national television news programme.”

There are also allegations that she used a large number of expert reports without seeking the proper permission from either the experts who wrote those reports or their subjects, and did not properly redact identifying data. Her report therefore, it is claimed, gave sensitive information about vulnerable individuals, both adults and children, to those involved in its production.

Furthermore, it is claimed that Professor Ireland had a conflict of interest in producing the report which she failed to declare. It is also claimed that when other psychologists made complaints about the report, she bullied them into withdrawing their complaints with threats of legal action.

Lastly, the charge sheet alleges that, based on the previous charges, Professor Ireland is guilty of misconduct and/or incompetence.

The hearing is due to conclude on 8th June.

Data TheftInformation Commissioner Christopher Graham has called for harsher sentences to be given to those who are found guilty of stealing data. Reiterating previous calls for tougher sentencing in this area, Graham said that current sentences were “not tough enough” and that there was a need for “more effective deterrent penalties than just fines.”

Graham’s comments were made through the website of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), on which an announcement was posted. They followed a case where an individual working for a vehicle rental firm Enterprise Rent-A-Car stole the personal information of nearly 28,000 of the firm’s customers. This information was valuable to cold callers, particularly those who make nuisance calls for road accident claims. The individual in question, Sindy Nagra, was paid £5,000 by such companies for the information she stole, according to the Information Commissioner’s announcement. Upon being found guilty at Isleworth Crown Court, Nagra was fined less than £1,000, along with a £100 victim surcharge and £864.40 to cover the costs of the prosecution.

According to the ICO, the courts are currently limited in what they can do to punish this kind of crime. The fines they can issue are theoretically unlimited, but they cannot issue custodial sentences and in practice the level of the fines they issue is often limited by various factors. Referring again to the example of Sindy Nagra, the announcement pointed out that, when deciding the extent of the fine, courts had to reflect the fact that Nagra had lost her job and did not have much money with which to actually pay whatever fine she was given.

The ICO would, the announcement said, like to see alternative options opened up to the court for cases like this where fines are limited and arguably not sufficient. Examples could include community service, suspended sentences and, in the most severe cases, prison terms.

According to the ICO’s statement, “the fines that courts are issuing at the moment just don’t do enough to discourage would-be data thieves.” It went on to say that it was important that those who stole the personal information of others “now that they will be severely punished and could even go to prison.”

This is not the first time the ICO, members of parliament, or other organisations have pushed for tougher sentencing of data protection offences, and these calls have not been without support. “Parliament voted for it to happen more than seven years ago,” the announcement says, “but it remains on a Westminster backburner. It is high time that changed.”

Boundary disputes between neighbours are common in the UK. The divisions between properties can change over time for a whole range of reasons and these alterations often go unrecorded, causing confusion and sometimes conflict between landowners. If you find yourself involved in one of these disagreements with a neighbour, it’s important to know how best to defend your interests, preferably without causing unnecessary tension or running up large legal bills. This brief guide talks you through the basics of solving a boundary dispute.

Check the legal documents

Your first recourse is to check the legal documents. Unless you’re well versed in property law or the legalities of the land where you live you may need to enlist the help of an expert for this. For example, a chartered land surveyor will be able to offer you advice. These specialists can examine the deeds and plans, survey the land and refer to aerial photographs and historical documents. This information may enable you to settle your dispute without taking any further action.

Try mediation

If you are still in disagreement with your neighbour after getting this additional information, you might be tempted to rush straight into court proceedings. However, it’s wise to try mediation first. As well as saving time and money, this approach can help to prevent relations between you and your neighbour from souring any further. The point of mediation isn’t necessary to reach agreement over precise boundaries according to the law, but instead to come to a pragmatic compromise that both parties are able to live with. If an agreement is reached during this process, the boundary can be drawn on the map and then incorporated into a formal written agreement.

Consider court proceedings

If your neighbour is unwilling to try mediation or you can’t reach a compromise during this process, it’s time to seek legal advice from a solicitor. Property law can be highly complex and if you find yourself at an impasse in your dispute, it is important to have an expert on your side who can protect your interests. In court, your legal team will have the opportunity to bring forward any evidence you have found to support your argument and your neighbour will be able to do likewise. The court will then reach a decision based on the information presented. Once the boundary line has been identified, a chartered land surveyor can mark it out and they may supervise any building or fencing contractors to help ensure there are no further disagreements.

There’s no getting around the fact that having a dispute with your neighbour over land boundaries can be stressful. However, by following advice like this, you can avoid unnecessary problems and keep your costs to a minimum.

Court Fee Increases Criticised

Court FeesThe Law Society has criticised major increases to court fees introduced six months ago. In the half a year since the introduction of these increases, the Society said, the extra money raised had not been put to good use and the higher prices were potentially harmful to small businesses.

Despite increasing the cost of accessing the UK’s courts, the Law Society said that no solid improvements to the quality of service or accessibility of justice had been delivered since fees went up. Furthermore, the Society said that in some cases the higher fees ran the risk of pricing smaller businesses out of the opportunity to exercise their rights under law, such as the right to recover debts. Individuals seeking to exercise their legal rights may be similarly prohibited by cost.

“There has been no assessment of the impact of increases, just six months ago, of more than 600%,” said Jonathan Smithers, president of the Law Society. He went on to say that any further increase in fees “may render ordinary people’s legal rights meaningless because they simply would not be able to afford to enforce them.”

Small and even medium-sized businesses, Smithers believes, are likely to be “disproportionately affected” by any further increase in fees. Some fees are proposed to be increased roughly twofold, to a total of £20,000, and the Society fears that this move in particular would exclude small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from the courts. This could even, it was suggested, lead to some businesses being forced unnecessarily into insolvency, because though money is rightly owed to them they are not able to go through the necessary process for recovering these debts.

Regarding the interests of businesses, increases to the fees attached to intellectual property claims were especially criticised. The Society pointed out that the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court was specifically established “to offer a less costly and less complex alternative to the High Court and Patents Court” – something that these fee increases “directly oppose” in Smithers’ view.

The Society was also critical of the fact that it believes higher court fees would mean the courts became profit-making as opposed to merely covering the costs involved with providing an essential public service. In particular, Smithers described a potential increase in divorce fees as “disappointing,” believing that “the government is seeking to gain from the misfortune of people who are going through the difficult circumstances of divorce.”

A number of other groups are also believed by the Society to be at risk of seeing their access to justice compromise. These include those making medical negligence claims, homeowners raising construction disputes, individuals appealing against tax demands, and those making immigration or asylum claims.

Plans are being consulted on by the government to close a number of courts and tribunal hearing centres across England and Wales, as part of Justice Secretary Michael Gove’s efforts to reduce “surplus capacity.” 91 courts and tribunals that are held to form a part of this surplus could soon face closure.

The larger part of the courts held to be potentially surplus are magistrates’ courts. 57 of these could face potential closure, representing around 63% of the total. This is followed by county courts, making up around 21% of the total with 19 individual courts threatened across England and Wales. On top of this, nine combined courts are facing the prospect of closure under the efforts to eliminate surplus, along with four tribunal hearing centres and two crown courts. Full details of the proposals, including a complete list of threatened courts, have been made available by the government online.

At present, there are currently 460 separate courts and tribunal hearing centres being operated across England and Wales by HM Courts and Tribunals Service. However, since his appointment to the role of Justice Secretary following the Conservative victory in May’s General Election, Michael Gove has been committed to streamlining the justice system by reducing waste and boosting efficiency. Following Gove’s call to reduce “surplus capacity,” the government has been looking for ways in which to achieve this and reducing the number of courts has now been named as a prominent way to potentially boost efficiency.

According to Shailesh Vara, parliamentary under-secretary of state for courts and legal aid, the courts and tribunals currently in operation around the UK are largely operating at well below their capacity. “Last year,” he said in a written statement on the matter, “over a third of all courts and tribunals were empty for more than 50% of their available hearing time.”

Closing some courts, the government claims, would therefore potentially allow the same workload to be quite comfortably handled by the remainder. The overall capacity of HM Courts and Tribunals Service would remain perfectly adequate, while reducing the costs involved with operating and staffing court facilities significantly.

If all 91 threatened courts are indeed closed, this will represent a reduction of almost a fifth (19.8%) in the number of individual courts and tribunal hearing centres operating in the UK. Due to the significant difference in size between different facilities, however, the reduction in overall capacity is likely to be a very different figure and is currently unclear.

NewspapersThose involved in civil appeals have been asked to aid the press in thorough reporting. New rules have been proposed which would require extra copies of important documents to be brought to the Court of Appeal so that they can be supplied to journalists.

The proposed rules, which would take the form of amendments to current practice directions, were first proposed last month by Lord Justice Richards. The main documents affected would be skeleton arguments and original judgements. Richards, was tasked with leading a Civil Procedure Rules Committee initiative to look into issues relating to press reporting of civil appeals. The sub-committee in question received evidence from the editor of the Strand News Service, following consultation with other members of the Press Association.

Reporting on the sub-committee’s findings, Richards said that things like skeleton arguments contain important details of the case, but are often taken as read within the courtroom and this leads journalists to miss out on key information. He also noted that there had once been a familiar practice among law firms whereby associates would provide trusted members of the press with information, but this has died out.

According to the evidence presented to the taskforce led by Richards, courts provide only little oral introduction to cases and instead rely heavily on documents to which members of the press do not have access. This, journalists claimed, was “unsatisfactory” as this restricted the amount of information released to the public and provided the opportunity for parties involved to control the amount of information given out.

“Reporters are currently dependant in practice on the co-operation of the parties in order to obtain documents required for the purpose of understanding the proceedings,” Richards reports.

According to minutes that have been released from the recent meeting of the Civil Procedure Rules Committee at which Richards reported this finding, the general sentiment among members was that Richards’ point had weight behind it. However, there was also a feeling that the proposed new rules in their current form would be too burdensome, requiring parties to take it upon themselves to find accredited journalists and provide them with the extra copies of the documents.

In order to overcome this issue, the committee suggested that two extra copies of skeleton arguments could be brought to court and then handed to the usher. The usher would then be able to handle the matter of distributing them. The idea of supplying other key documents to journalists alongside the skeleton arguments was outright rejected.

 

Linda Lee, a former president of the Law Society, has criticised the decision not to pursue allegations of historic sex crimes perpetrated by Lord Janner. Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders decided last week that the “severity” of Lord Janner’s dementia meant that he would not face trial for the allegations, and Lee’s is the latest in a number of voices raised to criticise this ruling.

According to Lee, speaking in an interview with The Times: “The matter should be brought before the courts so that the evidence may be tested in accordance with the law.” Lee acknowledged that Saunders may have been correct in believing that Lord Janner is not fit to stand trial on account of his illness, but insisted that it was not for Saunders to make the final decision on this matter.

A number of politicians were also critical of Saunders’ ruling, and urged the Director of Public Prosecutions to reverse the decision in a letter to a major national newspaper. In the letter, the politicians said that the decision was “damaging public confidence.”

Lord Janner is alleged to have carried out a number of child sex crimes between the 1960s and 1980s, and the Crown Prosecution Service confirmed it had enough evidence to bring a prosecution against him for 22 separate sex offences committed against nine individuals. However, Saunders ruled that Lord Janner would not be capable of competently instructing lawyers or properly entering a plea on account of his condition, and that action against Lord Janner would therefore not be taken.

Lee said that abuse victims had for years been: “denied access to the courts by unaccountable public servants. Even now when it is accepted that there is sufficient evidence to charge they are once again refused that first step of a hearing to decide whether or not Lord Janner is competent to stand trial.” In making this statement, Lee joins other voices that have claimed this was a decision to be made in court.

The decision not to prosecute Lord Janner was also criticised Liz Dux, who heads up national law firm Slater and Gordon’s London abuse department. Dux, who says that there have been failings in this case since the 1990s but was particularly critical of the latest decision, said: “I accept that the DPP had a difficult decision to make but it is vital that the public have total confidence in our judicial system and that rumours of institutional coverups are addressed.”

“In these circumstances,” Dux contended, “it would have been better for a judge to have made a decision regarding the fitness-to-stand-trial issue.”

FamilyThe pioneering Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) is to be extended throughout England. £2.5 million of government funding will be allocated to aid with the court’s national rollout.

The specialist family court was first pioneered in London, and has since also spread to Milton Keynes, Gloucestershire and Buckinghamshire after proving successful. It is a problem-solving court designed to tackle issues surrounding substance misuse by parents when they are impacting on the decisions that local authorities must make regarding care proceedings. The court was first set up in 2008 by Nicholas Crichton, a district judge.

With the newly-allocated government funds, FDACs will now be set up in locations across England, including Kent and Medway, Exeter and Coventry. However, Wales will not benefit from the court’s government-funded expansion, as the funds come from the Department for Education, a section of the government with a remit confined to England.

A new National FDAC Development Unit will be set up to handle the establishment and development of the new FDAC locations. This new unit will be located at the current site of FDAC London; The Coram Campus. It will have the support of a number of organisations, such as Coram – a children’s charity – and the Centre for Justice Innovation.

The initiative follows considerable success on the part of the current FDAC locations. According to Crichton, who led the establishment of the first FDAC, the more sympathetic and constructive approach of the courts has led some parents to display a “remarkable” capacity to change their behaviour.

“Harnessing the fairness and authority of the court,” Crichton said, “has shown that it is possible to break the cycle of drug and alcohol misuse.” He also emphasised the importance of the fact that the parents themselves often lend their support to the court, calling this fact “crucial to its success.”

Phil Bowen, director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, said that the FDAC had resulted in shorter hearings and reduced costs in the locations where it currently operated. There were also, he said, fewer cases being contested, a reduced need for legal representation, and reduced usage of foster care placements both during proceedings and after they had concluded.

Resolution, a prominent family law organisation, welcomed the England-wide rollout of the FDAC. Resolution chair Jo Edwards said: “The results of the pilot FDAC speak for themselves – even more so when you hear the human stories. And there are demonstrable savings to the public purse… it’s a financial no-brainer.”

A challenge to the legality made in April 2013 to legal aid for domestic violence victims has been rejected by the High Court. The challenge sought to overturn the need for victims to supply evidence of a prescribed type before they are able to qualify for legal aid.

The challenge to these changes was brought on behalf of Rights of Women by the Public Law Project. It also had the support of the Law Society. The challenge centred around several aspects of these requirements, including the fact that certain prescribed forms of evidence had a two year time limit. As many perpetrators of domestic violence may remain a threat for many years if not life, this time limit was held to be a problematic restriction.

Mrs Justice Lang said, in her judgement, said that the intention of the Lord Chancellor in introducing the changes was, she felt, “to ensure that the domestic violence exception was strictly confined to its intended scope and not exploited as a route to obtaining legal aid.” This, she decided, was consistent with the effort to reduce the legal aid system’s overall scope. Lang also rejected the challengers’ claim that the Lord Chancellor had, in creating regulation 33 which governs the types of evidence that are considered acceptable, exceeded his powers according to the Legal Aid S, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). On this latter point, she had the agreement of Lord Justice Fulford.

Lang did recognise that there were “justifiable criticisms” to be levelled against regulation 33. However, she did not feel that the Lord Chancellor’s discretion in establishing the acceptable forms of evidence that could be provided in order to qualify were so extreme as to contradict the purpose of LASPO.

“Whilst the evidence in this case indicates that it may not be operating effectively in practice,” she said in her judgement, “that is a matter for the [Lord Chancellor], and ultimately parliament, to address.”

President of the Law Society Andrew Caplen was disappointed with the decision, calling the changes “yet another example of the draconian cuts affecting vulnerable clients.” He went on to say that “Without legal aid women are being forced to face their perpetrators in court without legal representation. Victims of domestic violence should not be excluded from accessing legal aid for family law disputes against an abusive ex-partner or relative because of these unrealistic regulations.”

Rights of Women director Emma Scott also expressed disappointment, saying her organisation was “devastated by the outcome of our legal challenge.”

Scott continued: “Our most recent research shows that about 40% of women affected by violence do not have the required evidence in order to apply for family law legal aid.” She expressed an intention to apply for permission to appeal the decision.