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Justice at breaking point? Goodbye Ince? Hello Andrew?

Is the justice system at breaking point?

This time a year ago, criminal barristers were three weeks into their indefinite strike over stagnant and woefully low legal aid fees. The protesters were vocal in their complaints about the poor pay and conditions within the criminal justice system, highlighting how badly underfunded it was and how their overworked and burned-out colleagues were leaving in their droves. The industrial action lasted well over a month before the Criminal Bar Association (BCA) accepted a pay deal offered by then-justice secretary Brandon Lewis.

At the time, the strike was seen as but one symptom of the wider malaise affecting the UK’s justice system: ever fewer rape and sexual assault cases coming to trial, a massive backlog in the criminal, civil and family courts, legal aid slashed to the bone, horrendous burnout and attrition rates among the underpaid barristers – you get the picture.

So have things improved at all over the past year? It would seem not, if Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce’s LinkedIn post from earlier this week is anything to go by. She presents a similar litany of failures: “Court case backlogs at a record high, children removed from parents having to wait 46 weeks to get a final decision on where they will live, crumbling courts, overwhelmed prisons, a shortage of lawyers and judges, legal aid and legal advice deserts… And so on.”

Boyce continues: “Our justice system is disintegrating before our very eyes and our homes and communities are less safe. We will miss this fourth emergency service when it is no longer able to come to our aid. Without a fully functioning viable justice system our democracy and life as we know it is at risk.”

Her words denouncing our sclerotic and dysfunctional justice system make for pretty bleak reading, as do many of the comments below Boyce’s post, which include tales of frustration from the frontline (see private prosecutor Ashley Fairbrother’s comment here) and general exasperation with the powers-that-be and the chronic underfunding that has brought the system to this parlous state.

And to add insult to injury for those victims of crime whose lives are often essentially put on hold as they await the agonisingly slow delivery (or not) of justice, the country has been without a victims’ commissioner for over a year now, ever since Dame Vera Baird, the former Labour MP and solicitor-general, resigned from the post over a year ago.

In her resignation letter, Dame Baird voiced her frustration at “a lack of engagement from the top at a time of great upheaval for victims”, which she felt “reflected poorly on the Ministry of Justice’s priorities and the government’s approach”. She went on to accuse the then-justice secretary Domic Raab of trying to replace her with “a puppet on a string”.

On the anniversary of her departure, a group of victims’ rights campaigners led by the Victim Support charity and including Rape Crisis, the NSPCC and Barnado’s wrote an open letter to the current justice secretary Alex Chalk, expressing concern that the post of victims’ commissioner remains unfilled as the Victims Bill – which the campaigners describe as a “landmark” piece of legislation – passes through parliament.

Calling the failure to appoint a new victims’ commissioner an “affront” to those directly affected by crime, the campaigners state that the Victims Bill will “shape … rights for decades to come […] Yet during the most crucial period for debate and scrutiny, there is no commissioner in post to hold the government to account and help shape this long-awaited bill.” If I were a victim of crime and had already been waiting years for my case to come to trial, I can imagine that this state of affairs would feel a little bit like a raised middle finger, or like an additional shakerfull of salt in a wound that simply will not heal.

So, to quote one of my favourite Radiohead songs, where do we go from here? As I. Stephanie Boyce says in her post, “The government and politicians must commit to focusing on rebuilding, funding and making this country and our public services work for everyone regardless of where you live or who you are.” Hear, hear.

However, there are also some glimmers of hope, and it does seem that despondency doesn’t reign supreme everywhere in the justice system. The CBA’s new president, Tana Adkin KC, told The Times last week that “the mood of the criminal bar is settling” and that she feels a “positivity” and “determination to get cases on, address the backlog and deliver justice”.

Indeed, according to Adkin, the attitude of the “resilient body of men and women who are working all hours to get through as many cases as possible and dealing with the highest backlog, is hold on to your wigs and keep going”. Leaving the wigs aside, perhaps that’s all any of us can do, this side of a general election: keep going, and hope for better times ahead. We need them, urgently.

The final countdown for Axiom Ince?

So there we have it: the SRA has finally called in the bobbies. The Lawyer yesterday revealed that the Metropolitan Police has been contacted by the regulator in relation to the beleaguered Axiom Ince. It’s a move that has seemed inevitable ever since it was first announced that former managing partner Pragnesh Modhwadia is alleged to have misappropriated £64m from the client account.

A police spokesperson stated that “Detectives from the Met’s specialist crime team have launched an investigation and enquiries are ongoing. No arrests have been made.” Yet. But Modhwadia will now find himself fighting on at least two fronts, having to deal with the probing questions put to him by Met detectives while also defending himself in a dispute with his former firm.

Meanwhile, the SRA itself has found itself in the firing line, as questions have been raised about whether it did all it could to ensure things were on a sound footing when Axiom DWFM bought Ince and Plexus out of administration in July.

At a press conference held on Wednesday, the SRA chief executive Paul Philipp seemed unrepentant: he told the assembled journalists that the regulator had been unaware of any client account shortage when the Plexus deal was signed off, and had done “tremendously well” to spot the issues as quickly as it did. He added: “There appears to be growing confidence we have done everything we should have done according to our regulatory arrangements”.

That must be cold comfort indeed to Axiom Ince’s remaining employees, who find themselves at the centre of one of the UK legal sector’s biggest and longest-running dramas, which began back in April when the 150-year-old Ince Group went into administration after a major financial backer withdrew their support from what was already a trouble-plagued firm.

There’s fewer and fewer of them left, as ever more talent heads out the door before the roof falls on top of them. Irvin Mitchell has snapped up a team of seven regulatory lawyers headed up by partners Philip Somarkis and Colette Kelly. And Acuity Law has bagged three immigration lawyers from Axiom Ince: senior associate Sabina Kauser (whom Acuity Law is making a partner and trainee solicitors Mehreen Ali and Arooj Tussadiq will be joining national firm Acuity’s new Birmingham office.

The writing is on the wall. In flashing neon. On Monday, RollOnFriday revealed in an exclusive that Axiom Ince has been in touch with its clients to inform them that the firm is shutting down. “We are in the process of winding down Axiom Ince Limited, which will cease to trade in the near future”, according to an email seen by the ROF journalists.

Like some horrible game of Jenga, where the bricks in the teetering tower are people’s livelihoods and professional pride and cherished relationships with valued colleagues and clients, the whole thing is bound to come crashing down very soon.

When that hotline bling

Law firms are missing out on business by failing to call back potential clients, new research has shown. A mystery shopper exercise conducted by marketing collective First4Lawyers has highlighted that as many as one in five people who phone up law firms never receive a call back.

Conducted as part of First4Lawyers’ ninth annual white paper, the research revealed major gaps in some firms’ processes, with a particular disparity between the responses from wills practices and personal injury practices.

Of the 50 wills practices contacted by the researchers, four waited more than two working days to return calls and ten did not call back at all. By contrast, personal injury practices were much better at responding, with only four out of the 50 contacted by the researchers taking more than two days to call back and just two failing to call back at all. What makes the difference in response rates between the two practice areas all the more noteworthy is that around half of the calls made by the mystery shoppers were to the same firm.

The issue of poor service for potential clients doesn’t seem to lie in the initial phone call: only one of the mystery shoppers failed to get through to a law firm on the first attempt and two-thirds had their calls answered within three rings. And once the phone was picked up, the researchers were impressed by how polite, empathetic and helpful the fee earners on the other end of the line were, even though very few of them gave their name to the caller.

However, although the majority of fee earners explained to the callers how the firm could help, clearly outlined the costs and how things might proceed, only a third of them sold the benefits offered by their firm and just 19% offered to send further information or promised to make a follow-up call.

First4Lawyers’ managing director Qamar Anwar said:

“While law firms spend a lot of time and money getting the phone to ring or the email to ping with prospective clients, our research shows that many are still not putting enough emphasis on what happens when they do.

“One curious anomaly is the difference in service standards at firms offering both PI and wills and that is one obvious area where there’s room for improvement. When it comes to referrals, for example, a PI client will expect the same level of service from the wills department.

“While there is much to praise in what we’ve found, the reality is there is still much to do to keep pace with the change in how consumers are engaging with law firms.”

So law firm managers take note: it’s great news that most fee earners have a good phone manner, but they’re costing themselves and the firm a lot of work if they don’t get back to potential clients in a timely manner.

Who the FTSE is Andrew? 

Although not strictly legal-sector news, this story is simply too good/bad to ignore: researchers at People Managing People – a leading publication and community space for HR and people leaders – have used AI to combine the LinkedIn profiles of the CEOs at the helm of Britain’s top 100 companies, creating a composite figure of the ‘average’ FTSE100 CEO, whom they have dubbed Andrew. And, shock horror: he’s a middle-aged, privately educated white dude.

Behold his vaguely handsome yet strangely anodyne looks, his slightly disconcerting smile that makes him weirdly reminiscent of the Kinder chocolate kid, and the gimlet gleam in his eye that conveys a willingness (assuming you’re a fellow dude, of course) to drink whiskey with you at the Carlton Club, crush your hand during a manly handshake, or rugby-tackle you with an enthusiasm developed on the playing fields of Eton or Harrow, which he may well have attended.

Good old Andrew is (of course) white, 55, holds a degree in Economics from Cambridge University and was privately educated. He’s the CEO of a financial services company, which pays him an annual salary of £4,196,000. Andrew could also have been called Simon, as it turns out there are more men named Andrew or Simon (hey, don’t look at me!) among the FTSE100’s CEOs than there are women. Just wrap your head around that fact for a second!

Finn Bartram, Editor of People Managing People, states that the composite figure of Andrew exemplifies “undeniable privileges and gender disparities for the top jobs at some of the biggest companies in the country”. And he really does: 88 of the UK’s FTSE100 CEOs are men; 66% of them are privately educated, and they are paid 23.5% more than their female counterparts, of whom there are only 11.

It seems that when it comes to being at the very top of the UK’s corporate ladder, it is indeed a man’s world. And his name is Andrew.

In other news

There’s a new sheriff in town – and he has his work cut out

The Serious Fraud Office has got a new director. Nick Ephgrave, the former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service and chief constable for Surrey Police, began his five-year term of office on Monday.

And as Barry Vitou, a partner at the law firm Holman Fenwick Willan, wrote in The Times this week, it has never been so important to restore the reputation of the SFO, which has become somewhat tarnished in recent times after it became the subject of an inquiry by the UK Public Accounts Committee.

The weirdest story of the year from the world of legal?

If you’ve come across a stranger story, I want to know about it: read all about the bizarre tale of Jonathan Nutall, the husband of a National Lottery winner who hired an ex-Marine to plant fake bombs in London’s legal district in a vendetta against two National Crime Agency lawyers pursuing him in a £1.4m asset seizure.

Fog on the Tyne: Irwin Mitchell expands presence in the north east

National law firm Irvin Mitchell has expanded its presence further in the North East by acquiring family practice Silk Family Law. This acquisition gives the firm additional clout in Newcastle on Tyne, Leeds and Richmond, where Silk Family Law has its offices. Read more here.

Eversheds tops the Lawyer’s new Regional Powerhouse Ranking

You know me, I love data! So I was chuffed to take a gander at The Lawyer’s new Regional Powerhouse Ranking, which ranks the UK’s top-performing firms purely by revenue generated in the UK regions. And top of the list by quite some distance is Eversheds Sutherland, which generates nearly £354m from its ten offices outside London. See the full table and further analysis here.

So lonely: not everyone loves hybrid working

In a new survey on hybrid working conducted by Ipsos Karian and Box, nearly half (45%) of 18 to 24-year-old respondents said that they “always” or “frequently” felt lonely when they spent half of their week working from home. They also felt that they were learning fewer of the “critical skills” they needed for career progression and promotion. See more on this story here.

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