Free CPD

Want some free CPD? Its approaching the CPD year end for solicitors (Oct) and not all that far off for barristers (Dec)... Well, lucky readers of Pink Tape may now sample the wares of CPDcast for free using the code below. CPDcast tell me that:

'CPDcast is an online CPD provider to the legal profession, helping solicitors, barristers and legal executives get their points and keep up to date. Their library contains over 400 titles in 25 practice areas, divided into pithy 30 minute legal podcasts.

To get your free podcast just select the one you'd like to listen to for free. Then when you get to the payment screen put in the following voucher code "pinktape2010" which will discount the price to 0.

This voucher code can be used to listen to any one podcast on our site and is valid until the end of this calendar year.'

Feedback on the CPD they provide could be helpfully posted in comments on this post.

Legal Lookalikes

There are a growing number of quasi-legal services out there for litigants in person involved in family proceedings, and it is no surprise that many of them are advertised via the internet. I come across them increasingly frequently and they come in varying degrees of professionalism: from the ramshackle campaigning group with a few seasoned volunteers who act as McKenzies to the more savvy and commercially minded outfit with a slick website and a price tag.

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Today I came across this one: Family Law Decisions. It's a professional looking and streamlined website and I have no reason to think they do not match up to the promises set out there, or that they mislead in any way. But there are key differences between what you can expect from a non-legal support service of this kind and from a lawyer or law firm.

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Services like these tread very close to the dividing line between non-legal advice and support on the one hand, and legal advice and representation on the other. There are risks in my view, of obtaining legal services from non-lawyers. And when one scrutinises this and other similar services this is at heart what is offered. First hand experience does not necessarily equip one to provide impartial and legally sound advice. Emotional over-involvement can make for poor judgment: empathy is intoxicating for both client and adviser.

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Family Law Decisions website offers the following services:

  • Guidance on options
  • McKenzie friend in Court
  • Drafting documents (identified as pleadings, skeleton arguments, submissions)
  • Lay advocacy
  • Advice on procedure and law [my italics]

Wait a second: didn't it take me three years of postgraduate training and years of on the job practise to get good at just those things? That someone would hold themselves out as competent in the skills listed above without any formal training makes me a teensy bit anxious. Without a shadow of a doubt, had I tried to carry out my job without undergoing training and shadowing (pupillage) I would have made a right old b*lls up of it, to use the vernacular.

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Family Law Decisions is not unique in packaging itself in this way, as a range of services offered by non-lawyers, but I use it as an example. For the provision of these services they charge £40 per hour. Nice work if you can get it I say: it compares quite favourably with the rates of pay for legal representation by qualified lawyers on legal aid.

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Does it matter if the person helping you with your case  is not a lawyer? Perhaps. There is a fine line here. Under the Legal Services Act 2007 it is an offence to carry out reserved legal activities unless you are authorised or exempt. The conduct of litigation and exercise of rights of audience are so reserved. But, under the Act there is no regulation of the provision of the services listed above (they don't seem to fall into the definition of 'conduct of litigation') and it is not an offence to provide them (Where a judge gives a McKenzie a right of audience in a particular case they are exempt). So there is no legal obstacle to say Family Law Decisions should not operate in this way on an unregulated basis -i.e. without scrutiny from the Law Society, Bar Council, LSB, Ombudsman - nobody.

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I'm not knocking the valuable assistance McKenzies provide many who cannot afford a lawyer or who are ineligible for legal aid. But if you can pay £40 per hour for unqualified advice, unqualified representation (which might not be permitted on the day) and for the drafting of legal submissions and other documents by unqualified persons well - why not spend that £40 an hour on proper legal representation?

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The answer for some lies in their lack of faith in the legal profession - steer clear of lawyers at all costs, they are crooks (or so it goes). But think about it: If your solicitor or barrister provides an inadequate professional service or is negligent you can pursue that via a claim, safe in the knowledge that their mandatory professional indemnity insurance will not leave you high and dry and / or via the relevant regulator. What happens if your unqualified lay representative, adviser or draftsperson messes up? Yep, have fun with pursuing redress there.

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And think about this.  Family Law Decisions says in its FAQ section that:

I want to limit or stop the other parent spending time with our children, will you help me?

No (generally). We passionately believe in doing what is best for children. Research supports our view that shared parenting or near is best for children. Unless there are proven or likely to be proven risks of harm to children we will not assist in limiting or stopping children's time with another parent. See our Children page for further explanation of shared parenting.

All fine and dandy - such a policy is their prerogative and it is clearly set out on their website for all to see. So fine and dandy - if you happen to share that ethos. And if you can persuade them of the risks of harm to the children. What if they don't like the cut of your jib or just don't believe you? What if you decide half way through a case that you can no longer support shared parenting for your child  - will they leave you high and dry? There is no cab rank rule to stop them picking the cases they fancy and the section 188 Legal Services Act 2007 duty to the court to act with independence in the interests of justice does not apply. No legal training and no ethical training either. None of which means they will act in any way inappropriately, but the point is that you have no safeguards to ensure that they do. If you are happy to rely on a few testimonials that's your risk to take.

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The positive potential is for a client whose case fits well with the ethos of the organisation, to enjoy a wholly supportive experience from people who will go that extra mile to support the principle in question, where solicitors with an eye on questions of cost benefit and means / merits tests would wave goodbye. But there is limited legal protection for you if your experience is less than satisfactory.

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Lest there be any misunderstanding, I'm not being critical of the service provided by this particular organisation, but it is important to think before engaging the services of non-lawyers - especially if this is on a 'paid for' basis - about the reduced protection and lack of formal training and regulation may mean. It might look like a cheap way of achieving an approximation of legal advice and representation, but as outlined above it is in some respects very very different.

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Be aware that if you are engaging an organisation with an agenda, such as the agenda for shared parenting referred to by Family Law Decisions, there is a risk that your interests as client may be subjugated to the pursuit of the agenda. And whilst many McKenzies are undoubtedly experienced, articulate, and forceful negotiators, I would be wondering if at £40 p/h I was paying for the provision of a professional service or a campaign levy.

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I know that there are many litigants out there who have had or expect a poor service from lawyers or the family justice system (see for example my previous post on Solicitors from Hell) and I am alive to the suspicion and distrust with which we are often regarded. Sometimes that is because a client has had a genuinely poor service. But my distinctly non-legal advice is this: enlist the support of non-lawyers by all means but do go into it with your eyes open. It's not necessarily an antidote to the perceived corruption of lawyers or the system in which we work. And at £40 p/h it could burn a hole in your pocket worthy of any aspiring fat cat.

Solicitors from Hell

No surprise that the Law Society has picked up on the existence of the 'Solicitors from Hell' website, which it says is 'not a credible source of reliable information about solicitors'. The only surprise is how its taken this long, but apparently as a result of some recent media attention (none that I have seen) the Law Society is now recommending that individual firms referred to on that website should consider whether or not they have grounds to pursue an action for defamation.

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The Law Society is also seeking counsel's opinion as to whether the site's modus operandi - removing references to firms in exchange for payment - amounts to extortion.

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I sense there will be more on this story in due course...