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Given the Ax-iom, mega funding, daylight robbery, culture wars, Lady Chief Justice, TBD is growing and more…

Going, going… gone! Axiom Ince forced to shut up shop

It’s the news that will surprise no one: Axiom Ince has finally been put out of its misery by the SRA. The regulator revealed on Tuesday that it has intervened into the firm at various of its addresses and shut it down with immediate effect.

Rumours had been swirling all weekend that Axiom Ince’s insurance cover had lapsed, rendering it incapable of operating. And on Monday, the firm filed a notice with the London High Court stating that it intended to appoint administrators: it had finally run out of road and the inevitable could no longer be averted.

In its statement announcing the intervention, the SRA writes that it has taken this action “to protect the interests of clients and former clients of the firm”.

The statement continues: “We will stop the firm from operating, take possession of all documents and papers held by the firm, and take possession of all money held by the firm (including clients’ money). We are not responsible towards employees or trade creditors of firms that we have intervened in.

“We have appointed agents – other solicitor firms – to deal with all matters currently held by Axiom Ince. The agents will assess all on-going matters and deal with those of greatest need first. Our archive team will take control of all documents relating to closed matters held by the firm, such as copies of deeds and wills.

“[…] As there are on-going investigations related to this matter, no further details can be disclosed.”

That last line in particular is telling: indeed, the SRA’s intervention does not represent a definitive line drawn under what some regard as the woefully mishandled and downright suspicious matter of Axiom Dwfm’s acquisition from administrators of top-200 firms Ince & Co and Plexus Legal in July, out of which emerged the ill-fated Axiom Ince.

Former managing director Pragnesh Modhwadia in particular has questions to answer about the huge sum missing from the client account – questions not just from the SRA itself, which has acquired a £64m freezing order against Modhwadia, but also from the Metropolitan Police’s specialist officers, who have been called in by the regulator.

And the ripples of this seismic event are likely to be felt throughout the wider legal profession. Commenting in the Law Gazette, regulatory specialist Andrew Pavlovic, a partner with London firm CM Murray, states: “Alongside the costs of the intervention, there is also the potential for significant claims on the SRA’s compensation fund, given the size of the client account shortfall. It is not yet clear how this will all play out, but clearly there is the potential for extremely high levels of costs being incurred, which will ultimately be met by the profession.”

Meanwhile, former Axiom Ince staff members must look elsewhere for support, as the SRA has made it clear that it is focused exclusively on protecting clients and is unable to deal with any employment-related issues.

Luckily, vast swathes of the toppled firm’s talent are finding safe berths elsewhere. On Monday, national firm Buckles announced that it has taken on 30 people from the former Ince & Co offices in Bristol and Swindon. Meanwhile, national firm Collyer Bristow has nabbed Ince’s former real estate and construction team of six lawyers, including four partners. Penningtons Manches Cooper has recruited a team of three specialist shipping lawyers from Ince & Co. And yesterday it was announced that Spencer West has hired no fewer than 19 of Axiom Ince’s former lawyers, including six partners.

And so as one momentous and dramatic chapter of this sorry tale draws to a close, I can’t help wondering what more stories may yet emerge from all those files the SRA has seized from 14 Axiom Ince offices across the country. I don’t believe for a second that we have heard the last of this.

Pogust Goodhead sprouts a horn with £450m in US funding

Malfeasant corporations beware, for you might soon find yourself skewered by the most fabled and mythical of beasts: I am of course talking about the news that London-based group-action firm Pogust Goodhead has secured a whopping and unprecedented £454m ($552m) financing deal from a US-based fund, making it what some regard as the legal sector’s very first unicorn.

Emerging markets investment manager Gramercy has granted Pogust Goodhead this mammoth secured loan – the largest worldwide investment in any law firm, ever, and Gramercy’s largest single investment to date – in what has been dubbed an “investment partnership”, with the money to be used to fund Pogust Goodhead’s high-profile environmental group actions around the globe.

It consolidates the firm’s position as a premier class-action law firm: Pogust Goodhead has real pedigree when it comes to holding large corporations’ feet to the fire, as it did with British Airways over a data breach in 2021 and against Volkswagen over NOx emissions last year, in both instances securing settlements on behalf of its clients. It is currently taking 14 car manufacturers to court over the Dieselgate scandal, and next year will be facing off against mining companies BHP and Vale over Brazil’s Mariana dam disaster.

In the firm’s press release, global managing partner Tom Goodhead writes: “We are taking on some of the largest companies in the world – BHP, Mercedes, Johnson and Johnson, Bayer. These companies have access to infinite resources to litigate against these cases. This deal levels the playing field and gives us the ability to go toe-to-toe with them.

“This is a capitalist solution to a capitalist problem. We are not trying to destroy these companies. We are taking them on for corporate misconduct, anti-competitive behaviour, corporate harm and misuse of the environment.

“The cases we are taking will set the bar for how serious we are as a global society, about ensuring that big business is held accountable and upholds its obligations and responsibilities to the communities in which it operates.”

While I’m sure that Goodhead and the rest of the firm’s C-suite and partners will make bank along the way, I can’t help but respect their desire to scale – now that Pogust Goodhead has eaten this massive bowl of Weetabix (or whatever it is that unicorns eat), it can limber up and hopefully deliver some justice for the people the world’s major corporations are far too used to riding roughshod over.

Supermarket sweep: the crime wave hitting Britain’s retailers

The leaders of some of Britain’s largest retailers have written to Home Secretary Suella Braverman calling on her to take action against what the John Lewis Group’s outgoing chair Sharon White has dubbed an “epidemic” of shoplifting.

Penned by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and signed by the managing directors of 88 retailers across the UK – including the bosses of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Boots, WH Smith, JD Sports, Aldi, Primark and Superdrug – the open letter asks Braverman “to support our colleagues who continue to face unacceptable levels of violence and abuse, amid a rise in theft, much of it organised crime, and anti-social behaviour which in many cases are the root cause of violent incidents”.

The letter makes two key demands. Firstly, the BRC asks that the government create a new statutory offence of assaulting, threatening, or abusing a retail worker, so that offenders can be handed tougher sentences. This would be in line with the 2021 Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) Act passed in Scotland and would “send an important signal that our colleagues will receive better protection in law and act as a deterrent to would-be offenders”. This would also result in the police having to record all incidents of retail crime, thereby counteracting the fact that “The police consistently tell us that a lack of data about these offences means they have no visibility about the nature or scale of the issue”.

Secondly, retailers ask that police forces across the UK prioritise retail crime: “While the police face challenges across numerous competing priorities, 44 percent of BRC members rate the police response as poor or very poor,” the letter stated. “For one major retailer, the police’s own data shows that they failed to respond to 73 percent of serious retail crimes that were reported.”

Once you begin to delve into the stats, a pretty scary picture emerges of what life is like for retailer workers on our high streets: according to the latest BRC Crime Survey, which covers the period from 1 April 2021 to 31 March 2022, 867 incidents of violence and abuse against retail workers are reported every single day – double the pre-pandemic figures. And a separate BRC survey of members in 2023 has shown that levels of shoplifting have risen by an average of 27% across the UK’s ten biggest cities.

In a statement on this bleak situation, the BRC’s chief executive Helen Dickinson writes: “We are seeing organised gangs threatening staff with weapons and emptying stores. We are seeing violence against colleagues who are doing their job and asking for age verification. We are seeing a torrent of abuse aimed at hardworking shop staff.”

It seems that the BRC’s demands have not fallen on deaf ears. It has been announced that a new specialist police taskforce, code-named Pegasus, will be set up to target shoplifting as a “high-harm” cross-border crime on a par with fraud, robbery and burglary.

This will need to be an effective crime-fighting unit rather than a token gesture – as reported in The Telegraph, the National Crime Agency has warned “organised acquisitive crime” will only continue to grow in the years ahead due to “increases in the cost of living”, while a private security chief specialising in tackling shoplifting has predicted “carnage” in the UK’s shops at Christmas in the absence of urgent action.

Personally speaking, I think it’s pretty shameful that our country’s shop workers have to live in fear when they go to work each day. And I wholeheartedly endorse Helen Dickinson’s words: “We need government to stand with the millions of retail workers who kept us safe and fed during the pandemic – and support them, as those workers supported us.” Preach!

Tory MPs tell the FCA to stay in its lane

MPs on the right of the Conservative party have criticised the FCA, accusing it of overreaching itself in its efforts to help stamp out sexism in the City.

In what the Common Sense Group of MPs have dubbed “mission creep”, the regulator has recently  launched a consultation on diversity and inclusion which includes proposals to make “non-financial misconduct” an integral part of its “fit and proper persons” test for City executives.

This is widely regarded as a reaction to the Crispin Odey sexual harassment scandal. Commenting ahead of the consultation in September, FCA boss Nikhil Rathi stated that “for UK financial services to be competitive and for the companies in it to be well run with healthy work environments, it is vital they attract, retain and promote the best talent” – cases such as Odey’s could prevent the City from retaining its leading position in the global financial markets, Rathi argued.

However, the Common Sense Group MPs are having none of it, insisting that the FCA should stick to its day job of “protecting consumers by promoting competition and ensuring market integrity”. It seems that even an organisation as ostensibly beige as the FCA cannot keep out of the fray that is the ever-escalating culture wars.

First ever Lady Chief Justice sworn in

A momentous milestone in legal history was made this week when Dame Sue Carr was sworn in as the first Lady Chief Justice. This marks the first time ever that a woman has sat at the head of the judiciary in England and Wales.

After taking the oath of office at a ceremony at the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Monday, the 59-year-old Lady Carr (as she has chosen to be titled) became the 98th judge to hold a position dating back to the age of the Plantagenet kings nearly 800 years ago. Her appointment comes more than a hundred years after women were first allowed to practise law, and at a time when there are ever louder calls to diversify the upper echelons of the legal profession. As Master of the Rolls Sir Geoffrey Vos highlighted during his speech following the ceremony, the judiciary must be “careful not to be complacent” now that it had appointed its first female Chief Justice: “Work remains for us all to make our judiciary as diverse and as inclusive as it should be”, he said, though adding that he “can think of no better person to spearhead that task than our Lady Chief Justice”.

Law Society president Lubna Shuja commented: “Today is a historic and important day for progress in the legal profession. It is a proud moment for everyone that works in the justice system. The inauguration of the first lady chief justice is very significant. It shows that although we have a way to go our profession is moving in the right direction and under your leadership we will continue to do so.

“Representation inspires change. It was not long ago we celebrated 100 years since the first woman entered the legal profession. Now we are celebrating the first woman to ascend all the way to the pinnacle of our legal system and I hope you are the first of very many more.”

Lady Carr did not speak herself during the 50-minute swearing-in ceremony, but did issue a statement saying that she looked forward to approaching the role with “energy, enthusiasm, and positivity”.

She will need all three: as covered in last week’s newsletter, Lady Carr takes office at a time of unprecedented strain on the justice system.

The TBD team is growing

I’m over the moon to reveal that Matthew Rowe will be joining TBD as a Senior PR & Marketing Consultant next week.

He’s a top professional services marketing talent and his appointment will turbo-charge our already thriving consultancy. Not only is Matt an award-winning marketing specialist and CIPR Accredited Practitioner, he also has a proven track record, having held a number of ‘Head of’ positions at significant professional services firms.

He originally started out in legal and tax publishing with LexisNexis (under the Butterworths and Tolley brands), and went on to work at Eversheds Sutherland, RSM, Evelyn Partners, Birketts and most recently Rickard Luckin where he was a member of the firm’s Leadership Team advising the Board on strategic marketing matters.

Great news for the TBD team and for our clients!

In other news

Big Brother returns to more than our TV screens

A survey commissioned by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has found that one in five UK adults believe they have been monitored by their employer. These findings come at a time when unions are pointing out that workplace surveillance increased during the pandemic.

Emily Keaney, deputy commissioner of regulatory policy at the ICO, said: “Our research shows that monitoring at work is a real cause for concern, especially with the rise of flexible working – nobody wants to feel like their privacy is at risk, especially in their own home.”

For more on this story, see here.

Cads abound

The latest figures from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) show that romance fraudsters scammed more than £92m from their victims over the last year.

Romance fraud involves the systematic grooming, isolation and manipulation of victims, who are tricked into believing they are in a genuine relationship with the perpetrator, who then ultimately defrauds them of money. The NFIB received over 8,000 reports of romance fraud last year, making romance scams one of the top five most commonly reported frauds.

You can read more here.

Legal funder SpectraLegal hits the skids

Not all litigation funders are made equal. While Harbour has been making legal-sector headlines for all the right reasons this year after a string of innovative, high-value funding deals, news emerged this week that SpectraLegal, which has issued hundreds of millions in funding to firms in its time, is about to be wound up.

Read all about it here.

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