Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Unbelievable arrogance

I have just had the dubious pleasure of watching Vera Baird QC, our legal aid minister, being questioned on Channel 4 lunchtime news about the legal aid reforms. When asked how vulnerable clients were going to manage if they have to travel up to 50 miles to get essential legal advice, she just shook her head in a patronizing manner and said that that this was simply not going to happen.

Actually, she told us, it is going to be better for everyone after the reforms come in, because (she implied) solicitors will be forced to manage their practices properly which will mean more money and work for all. In fact, those silly old solicitors are just making a fuss about nothing and will soon be grateful to the government for making them carry out these essential changes which will make their working lives so much better.

How stupid is she? Does she not know that all legal aid practices have had years of efficiency measures being imposed on them, auditing, five year plans, cost cutting exercises and the like. Does she really think that she, a government minister and barrister, knows better than the partners how to run a legal aid firm? And does she really think that solicitors are going to carry on doing legal aid work if these reforms come in, when there is other much more profitable work to be done? It is not solicitors, remember, who are going to suffer for all this, it is the clients.

So far as I can see there are two possible reasons for the governments attitude. One is that they want to kill the legal profession dead because an active legal profession is an embarrassment to them as they keep pointing out problems in their legislative program etc. The other is that they don’t have the cash and the Health Service is a more popular destination for any cash that they do have. I really hope it is the second, but sometimes I get paranoid and wonder if it is the first.

But if I had not given up legal aid work a long time ago, I would be very much tempted to give it up now and to write to Ms Baird and tell her that it was her smug patronizing attitude which had been the last straw.

If you feel as annoyed about all this as I do, support the Law Societies "What price Justice?" campagn.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Schools' junk mail problem

I was talking to a deputy head teacher recently who told me that they had a terrible problem (as apparently do all schools) with junk mail. The problem is disposing of it, as they apparently get charged for rubbish collection. So this totally useless rubbish mail, which they do not want, is actually costing them money to dispose of.

I wonder sometimes whether we can’t do more to stop junk mail, perhaps fining companies who persistently send it out to people and organizations who don’t want it. And before you mention it, although there is a fax preference service which businesses can register with to prevent unwanted faxes, so far as I am aware there isn’t one for business’s for mail.

Something should be done about it. Money paid to schools should be used for children’s education, not for disposing of junk mail they never asked for in the first place.

(Rant over!)

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Inside the Insider

Rather against my better judgment I included 'The Insider' by Piers Morgan in my last Amazon order. But to my surprise I am really enjoying it. I had no idea that editors of the Mirror had such access to the great and famous. And he is delightfully rude to people (or at least he reports himself as being). He also shows an entertainingly childish "I’m going to get you for that" attitude, which reminds me a bit of those engines in 'Thomas the Tank Engine' who were always getting at each other and having feuds.

My husband thinks it a gross error of taste to have the book in the house at all, and refuses to believe that it could possibly be worth reading. "He's a complete toerag" he splutters "I can never forgive him for what he did to the Mirror, never, a once fine paper with columnists like Pilger and Foot". Thus speaks the diehard socialist.

Well personally, I wouldn’t read the Mirror in a million years anyway (unless perhaps I found it on a train seat on a long journey when I had forgotten to bring a book) so I don’t really care what he did to it. I still think the book is an entertaining read. Although deeply worrying too, if you think about it seriously.

There is one thing about buying a book written by a journalist, it is generally quite readable. They have after all had quite a bit of practice in writing. I enjoyed Andrew Marr’s book as well, very much, although it is quite different in tone.

I have introduced some Amazon links in one of the blocks to the right, just for fun and possible financial enrichment as I am an affiliate – I get something like a squillionth of a pound for every purchase. You may have to scroll up or down to see them depending on where this item is on the page.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Fleet heroes

I was delighted to read in the Observer today about the Energy Saving Trusts Fleet Hero awards. Mind you, I can’t find anything about it on the EST site – maybe they have just not got around to loading it up yet.

Still, on to the awards. Good stuff with Gateshead Local Authority increasing their bio fuel usage, and saving 300 tons of carbon dioxide per year and £77,000 in fuel costs by re-organizing the way it uses its fleet (green can often be cheaper!) and training their staff in ecodriving techniques. They were the overall winners. However the report also featured:

  • The Bolton Alternative Fuels Co-operative which converts waste oil from local restaurants to biofuel for their members
  • Goingreen which imports and sells small electric cars
  • City Lawyers Tom Pakenham and Jonny Goldstone who left their jobs to start up eco taxi company greentomatocars
  • Italian taxi company Bioshuttles which not only uses biofuels but also environmentally friendly detergents to wash vehicles, and
  • The South West Regional Development Agency whose own staff devised their green transport policy which has resulted in 20% decrease in mileage
To name but a few. It is very exciting to see such enthusiasm for cutting carbon emissions.

What are you doing?

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Legal aid? Problem sorted.

Thinking about the decline of legal aid while in the bath this morning (as you do), I thought "If I were in charge, what would I do?". Well here is my ‘from the bath’ solution, gratis, from someone who used to do legal aid but does it no longer.

Well, I think to start with, I would like to separate civil and criminal legal aid. From all I hear, it is the terribly expensive criminal trials which drain the legal aid funds. So if the civil stuff were separated out, it would show itself to be the inexpensive beast that it is.

Probably the best thing would be to have a fund. This could be used to underwrite legal costs, so solicitors could be certain of getting paid. Government could pay into the fund a specified amount, to cover those cases where the costs are not recovered from the other side. The fund could ‘earn money’ by taking on, once again, personal injury actions. The majority of these are successful so the insurers pay all the costs. However if the fund was the organization taking the risk, the ‘success fee’ currently paid to solicitors could be paid to the fund. No doubt insurance cover could be arranged, as now, to cover the risk of the claimant having to pay the other sides legal costs and experts fees.

So the fund could get income from the government (about the same as it pays now for civil stuff), interest from money held, success fees from civil claims which are successful, and would probably take a loss on most family cases. Housing cases – well some would be a cost but others, for example disrepair claims, could well bring in cash via the success fee. There would also have to be a statutory charge type arrangement to cover situations where a benefit is obtained but no costs are paid.

I have to say that I would prefer to see the fund administered by someone other than the Legal Services Commission – I think they are a horrendous organization (although with some very nice people working for them), realistically though I suppose we would probably get stuck with them. However as this is all imaginary anyway, let us say that the civil fund would be managed by a new organization – called something like the Civil Legal Costs Fund. Perhaps to be headed up by someone sensible from business, with a proven track record of running things efficiently.

The fund would have to be very carefully managed so its potential liability for costs (bearing in mind the proportion, statistically, of current cases which will not be a cost) did not exceed the amount of the fund. All cases would have to be assessed before being approved by the fund and strict limits applied, as with legal aid certificates.

Hopefully this system would be supported by solicitors. Although they would lose their success fee on PI cases, they would hopefully gain other work which would balance this out. And if they just did PI cases, then no doubt the option would remain to ignore the fund and carry on doing their own no win no fee agreements as now.

On reflection, and in an ideal world, I think I would prefer to see the scheme operate free of government altogether, i.e. be a private legal aid funding system. It would need a friendly multimillionaire to seed it by coughing up a few million, but it could be self funding thereafter. The advantage of being a private scheme is that it would be more likely to avoid the stultifying form filling and bureaucracy which inevitably accompanies any state funded system, and which makes them such a nightmare for all who work in them. Maybe it could start from a few firms and then gradually expand.

"But what about criminal legal aid?" I hear you ask, "You haven’t mentioned that!" Well I have never been a criminal practitioner so they will have to think up their own solution. Forcing government to think through the legal aid implications of new legislation would of course help.

However talking to a friend recently, he pointed out that government really needs the criminal practitioners because they are far, far cheaper than a state funded system would be. In a state funded system, the working time regulations would have to be followed strictly, whereas self employed solicitors can ignore them and just get on with the work. So they have the government over a barrel really. All they need to do is push this point home, which hopefully they are doing with their current go slows and strikes. Good luck to them.

So there you are. Problem sorted. What do you think?

But of course it is not really as easy as that.

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Another missed opportunity

While doing research recently for my book, I was distressed to see that the Department of Communities and Local Government's Decent Homes Standard, which all social housing is supposed to meet by the end of 2010, does not not include a measure of energy efficiency.

I am constantly disappointed by this governments poor record on environmental matters. It seems that despite lip service to environmental concerns, in things which could make a real difference, they just forget about it. If all social housing landlords were forced to consider energy efficiency when looking at improvement works, this could have a tremendous beneficial effect. As it is, the cash strapped social landlords are not (save for the enlightened few) going to consider improvements they are not required to make.

Yet another missed opportunity.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Councils in crisis with HMO backlogs

An interesting article in Inside Housing gives the not entirely unexpected news that Local Authorities are finding it difficult to cope with all the licensing applications they have received. Indeed it appears that some of them have not issued any licenses at all yet.

A survey of 10 Councils by Inside Housing showed that 6,380 applications had been received but only 348 licences had been issued. Of course 10 is a very small sample and I am sure that many councils are doing splendidly. However I expect the general view put forward, that Councils are finding it difficult to deal with the applications received, is a true one. Indeed I would be surprised if this were not the case, bearing in mind that so many applications have had to be made at the same time, and that councils are unlikely to take on extra staff to deal with it.

The sad thing is that due to the pressure of dealing with the licensing applications, staff are unable to be out there dealing with the bad landlords, none of whom will have submitted their applications.

Still it is not all doom and gloom. One day they will get over the bulge of work and be able to take stock of the situation. They will then know who is good and who is bad. And hopefully then, there will be the will and the power to deal with the bad landlords.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Tenants Book

I’m writing a book. A book for tenants this time (I have already done one for Landlords - see left). Its coming along quite nicely, I have done over 40,000 words so far, but I thought having a blog I ought to use it to vent my angst from time to time, on writing niggles and so on. Otherwise why have a blog?

Mind you I am not going to tell you all about the book, I will tell you that when it is published (so it will be a nice surprise for you!). But it aims to help tenants through the minefields of residential landlord and tenant law.

I’m hoping to make it easy to understand and am trying to make my English as plain as I can. However it is difficult sometimes when you are a lawyer and legal phrases are second nature to you. I have to keep stopping myself and saying “they’ll never understand that, you will have to re-phrase that”. Which of course makes the book very wordy as most legal phrases are verbal shortcuts, so we can refer to complex concepts without having to explain them every time. Difficult.

Also I keep coming across nasty holes in the law where I cannot find the answer to questions I suspect tenants will expect to have answered. For example there is a common law implied covenant that rented properties will be fit for habitation on the first day of the tenancy, which only applies to furnished lets. But I cannot find any definition of what a furnished/unfurnished let actually is! Does 'unfurnished' mean no furniture at all? Does 'furnished' mean the furniture must be sufficient for the tenant to be able to move in and live in straightaway (for example have all necessary beds and chairs)? What about lets where only kitchen white goods are included?

I suspect there may be something on the Inland Revenue site about this and I will have to brace myself to take a look there. If you can help do leave a comment. I am sure that there must have been a case on this at some time.

More on the book later ...

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