The privacy genie is out of the bottle. The Facebook generation, brought up on sharing even the most intimate details online, has no concept of confidentiality or need-to-know.And it is this same IT-savvy Facebook generation that is tasked with safekeeping our personal data: our private medical and financial records, our purchasing patterns and income history, our web browsing and emailing secrets. The privacy genie is never getting back into the bottle because, to put it bluntly, the bottle has been smashed. These were some of the observations made during a debate hosted by Law Society president Robert Heslett on Monday 7 June. Chatham House Rules applied, which means the Gazette is unable to reveal who the speakers were, so I have decided to give them invented names along the lines of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’. Mr Red got the show off to a good start. ‘Privacy safeguards have not kept pace with risk,’ he said. ‘There has been no malign intent. Paper records that once required a small warehouse to store them now fit on to a couple of CDs or a memory stick – which is convenient, except they are easily lost. ‘The technology was aimed at doing good for society and, mostly, it has. Except we’ve gone forward piece by piece, the click of a mouse here, a mobile phone there, Facebook here, Google street map there, a CCTV camera here, there and everywhere. Until suddenly, in its totality, we have found ourselves with something scary and intrusive. ‘What can we do about it? Is it too late? Do we need a big legislative stick, with threats of heavy fines and prison sentences, to force businesses to take our privacy seriously?’ Plenty to think about there. Ms Brown said: ‘Privacy is a grudge purchase. The risk perception is low because there is no risk to life or limb, only to money or reputation. We need stronger regulation, with more bite, to force boardrooms to make the privacy grudge purchase – the same as they make a grudge purchase for security.’ Mr Purple, who works for a search engine company, warned against ‘bundling Big Brother’ with beneficial advances in communications. Mr Green, from the same search engine company, said: ‘Air travel and the internet have both revolutionised our lives. There are hundreds of deaths each year when aeroplanes crash, but we accept that as the price you pay for speed and convenience. Search engines do not cause deaths. Maybe we should accept the occasional breach of privacy as the price you pay?’ Mr Red wrapped up proceedings: ‘I suspect there would be a public outcry if we ripped out all the CCTV cameras. We are a tolerant society and people believe they are there to protect us. ‘Nonetheless, I accept that the organisation I am representing today has spent too much time jaw-jawing rather than war-warring. There is no silver bullet, unfortunately, but at least this evening’s debate has set lots of hares running.’ The Law Society has joined forces with surveillance watchdog Privacy International to found a privacy rights centre providing pro bono legal help to victims of oppressive surveillance technologies. Heslett has said the centre will be ‘a key player in a coalition of individuals and organisations concerned with the legal and human implications of surveillance in the UK and internationally’. He calls upon lawyers and activists to become involved in the centre’s work. For more information visit the Privacy Rights Centre website.
City firm Hammonds and US firm Squire Sanders & Dempsey are discussing a merger that would create a 1,300-lawyer transatlantic practice with combined revenues of more than £400m. In a statement released this afternoon, the firms said that they are ‘evaluating the possibility’ of a tie-up, although ‘much remains to be done before bringing the merger to a partnership vote’. The statement said that partners are likely to be asked to vote on the merger before the end of the year. If partners vote in favour, the deal will become the third major transatlantic tie-up to be given the green light in the last 12 months. The merger between City firm Denton Wilde Sapte and US firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal is due to complete on 30 September, creating a 1,400-lawyer, £500m practice. City firm Lovells and US firm Hogan & Hartson finalised their merger in May with the creation of Hogan Lovells, comprising 2,500 lawyers and revenues of around £1.1bn. Squire Sanders chair James Maiwurm and Hammonds managing partner Peter Crossley said that preliminary discussions showed that both firms are ‘focused on strategic geographic and practice growth’, that ‘meets multinational clients’ desire to work with fewer law firms and with firms that have demonstrated global depth and breadth’. The firms’ leadership groups have identified ‘compatible client bases and culture’, the statement said. Maiwurm said: ‘While we are still at an early stage, our discussions to date indicate that such a merger would appeal strongly to clients that want high-quality legal services from lawyers who have global experience and who understand and respect client demand for value. ‘Squire Sanders is committed to being a global firm. We need a more complete presence in the UK and Western Europe to complement our strength in central and Eastern Europe. Hammonds has a well-developed platform that would complement our presence in Europe, would add to our capabilities in Asia and would enhance Squire Sanders’ broad-based Latin America resources.’ Crossley said that Hammonds’ long-term strategy targets growth in the UK and Asia, expansion of the firm’s footprint in continental Europe and the establishment of closer ties with the US. ‘Operating as “one firm” around the world is a foundation of the Hammonds culture which is shared by Squire Sanders. There is an obvious cultural fit between the two firms,’ he said.
The Legal Services Commission has announced that all current ‘family only’ and ‘family with housing’ legal aid contracts will be extended until 14 December, following the Law Society’s successful judicial review of the tender process. The LSC has until 29 October to decide whether to appeal the High Court judgment which has prevented it from awarding contracts to the providers that were successful in its tender. The LSC also announced that all other civil contracts and family mediation contracts will start on 15 November. An LSC spokesman said that it was ‘possible’ the LSC would announce its decision on whether to appeal in the next few days. However, he added that the commission is considering the judgment carefully and has until 29 October to notify the court and parties of its decision. Last month Lord Justice Moses ruled that the LSC’s failure to give adequate notice of the selection criteria for its tender process was unlawful.
The Law Society has opened applications for its Diversity Access Scheme (DAS), aimed at law students facing social, educational, financial or personal obstacles to qualification. The scheme involves the chance to gain a Legal Practice Course scholarship, work experience and mentoring. Previous DAS alumni have experienced time in local authority care, resisted coercion into arranged marriage, and battled for access to university and work experience with severe physical disabilities and illnesses. The application process for 2011/12 is open until 31 March. Last year’s scheme received 175 applications, from which 25 were admitted. The Law Society, with the continued support of sponsors, aims to increase the number of awards every year. Law Society President Linda Lee said: ‘These are very inspirational and gifted people who have triumphed against the odds to follow their dreams. The Law Society is delighted to be in a position to assist them on their way to life long success. ‘It is important to the Society and the wider profession that becoming a solicitor is open to all those who can meet our high standards irrespective of financial means. The solicitors’ profession is a meritocracy where hard work and talent should be the keys to success.’ For more information and an application form can be found on the Law Society page.
Like many others, I am concerned about the government’s proposals on civil litigation costs. But I felt your call to arms, Join clients in the fight – Slaughter to be a step too far. Perhaps we should try negotiating first? Anita Scott, Bedwell Watts & Co, Scarborough
As a practising barrister with no party-political affiliation, I have, like all lawyers, had to think long and hard recently about what our reaction should be to the savage cuts to legal aid imposed by ministers who have very adequate incomes, and in some cases substantial private wealth. I am reminded of a long-dead solicitor, Leslie Slade, who practised alone in the small country town of Newent in Gloucestershire. He told me that during the 1920s depression, he and other solicitors at Ross-on-Wye Magistrates’ Court and elsewhere were ready to – and did – defend anyone who could rustle up a few pounds (at most £3). The present situation mirrors that described by Slade, who survived in practice and lived to tell the tale until about 1970. Reflecting on this, I am converted to the view as counsel that, if asked to accept a brief fee of £200 instead of a more usual £500 for a case to be heard within 25 miles of chambers, we should, wherever possible, accept the lower fee on receipt of a fully prepared brief (and subject to seeing a copy of the legal aid offer). The alternative is to allow some poor devil to face the court unrepresented. The idea of having to bow the knee to government unfairness goes against the grain, but in the interests of justice to lay clients it is the only solution. Stanley Best, Barnstaple Chambers Winkleigh, Devon
The government has rejected a recommendation from a commons committee to extend the ban on referral fees. A ban on receiving or paying fees for personal injury cases features in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill. It is set to come into law next October once it has passed through the House of Lords. In October, the House of Commons Justice Committee called for that ban to be extended to other types of cases and to be punished with a custodial sentence. But ministers have insisted referral fees must be a regulatory offence and for now the ban will apply only to personal injury. In a response to the committee report, the government says today: ‘The main concerns giving rise to the proposal have arisen in relation to personal injury claimants being actively encouraged to pursue their claims. ‘The government is therefore taking immediate action in this area. However, the provisions in the bill do include powers to enable the Lord Chancellor to make regulations to extend the ban to other types of claim and legal services, should the need arise in due course.’ Sir Alan Beith, chair of the committee, said it was ‘disappointing’ that the government had chosen to limit its enforcement capacity for the most serious cases of abuse of personal information. He added: ‘It is likely that ministers will have to return both to this issue and to the issue of referral fees in areas other than personal injury, where they are taking welcome action.’ The government announced a partial ban on referral fees in September, days before a commons motion calling for the measure from former justice secretary Jack Straw. Last summer the Legal Services Board said a ban was not justified and resources would be better spent clamping down on rogue elements in the claims farming industry.
Firms just outside the top 25 are prospering more than anyone as fee income continues to rise across the upper echelons of the legal market. The latest quarterly survey by Deloitte of the legal service market – covering the third quarter of 2011/12 – found strongest growth in the 26-50 rankings, where fee income grew by almost 10%. The top 100 reported their income rose by 7.2% in the three months to 31 January, compared with the same period last year. However, the growth rate slowed since the second quarter, which reported 9.8% growth. Looking over the nine months of the financial year so far, fee income has risen by 6.5%, a figure likely to remain steady in the fourth quarter. The report says that given the rise in merger activity during the year, which boosts the overall growth rate, the underlying market growth will have been a little below this figure. Higher revenues were driven by an increase in fee-earner headcount averaging 5.2% and a 2.8% rise in chargeable hours per fee earner. Nominal fees remained in line with the same period in the previous year. There is still a sharp disparity between firms’ performances. During the third quarter, a third of firms reported either growth above 18.5% or income decreases by at least 4%. Jeremy Black, partner in Deloitte’s professional services group, said: ‘The overall sector has performed well in what have been very challenging markets. On average it is anticipated that the top 100 firms will grow by 6-7% for the year ended 30 April 2012. ‘However, the overall averages hide a wide disparity between firms, with performance increasingly dependent on firms’ practice areas and geographic footprints. ‘Litigation continues to perform well, whilst corporate revenues remain lacklustre. Furthermore, those with a presence overseas, particularly in Asia, are able to bolster their performance in light of a more stagnant domestic market.’ The report added that top 100 firms had, on average, budgeted for an increase of up to 5%, reflecting the concern they felt at the start of the financial year.
Stirring words from Admiral as the car insurance giant announced its latest financials. Given all the doom and gloom we hear about the insurance industry in the face of a rapacious compensation culture, it was something of a surprise to hear that group profits were up 13% to £299m in 2011. Chief operating officer David Stevens is looking forward to an even brighter future after the government’s civil litigation reforms kick in. ‘Hopefully,’ said Stevens, ‘the result will be some much-needed reform of an often dysfunctional system to the benefit of customers and ultimately insurers.’ Presumably this dysfunctional system includes the payment (and acceptance) of referral fees. So you’d expect Admiral to be dead against this practice, right? Well, not exactly. A company spokesman said: ‘When an Admiral policyholder has an accident which is not their fault they will contact us. In some cases they will have suffered a bodily injury. Admiral will put them in touch with a third party who can assist them in recovering their loss. We would not do this unless the customer agreed that they wanted this assistance.’ So is the system dysfunctional, or not? How apt that one of Admiral’s subsidiaries is confused.com.
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