Back to the Future part IV

by Steve Wedd

Solicitors were once so reluctant to do out of hours duty work that they had to be paid to do it. The hourly rate for sitting and waiting was £3.45 – just for waiting for the phone call.

In those days, the duty solicitor schemes were run by local committees. I declare my own interest in having run the Brighton Scheme for ten years. Some committees were protectionist and wanted to keep new members out of the club, some more laissez faire. My own committee was a model of well-organised and welcoming administration.

The local lawyers knew who was about, who was up and coming, and who really needed a quiet word either for skill or service. We knew when someone was taking the mickey by place holding and we policed it well. In addition, all committee members attended all the meetings and none was paid for their time. I took a small stipend based on the number of letters written (at legal aid rates), but nothing more. It seemed to work.

We have now reached a stage where the oversupply of solicitors in most areas has caused the own solicitor market to be saturated and caused membership of the duty scheme to be desirable as a way – maybe the only way – to obtain new client case work.

There are more lawyers than cases, certainly in Brighton, where I practice. Accordingly, keeping your slot on the scheme is important to keep the new work coming in. Andrew Keogh poked an earworm in my head last year when he said, ‘no matter how big your client list appears to be, remember nearly all of them were once just duty pickups’. I despair to think that he was right. My Timpsons are all in gaol now. Their kids are stoned or on playbox I360.

Recognising this, the Government cannot resist taxing the goodwill of the volunteers in the schemes, by creating this split screen market for providers. However, it should be wary of fulfilling its ambitions – why?

For those unlike me who are going to apply, and the lucky few who win a duty contract, the competition from the outsiders is just about to heat up. Until now, the cosy club of members doing their fair bit for a fair wage, and taking their share of dull Tuesdays with their share of frantic Saturday nights put up with it. Some days, piles of shop theft, some days a run on rape or fraud. Bye bye brave old world.

The public will be deluged with adverts in every form offering to compete with the duty for the work. Outside most nicks, there are parking spaces. We can set up camper vans parked on verges showing the usual signs – ‘never mind the duty, get a real lawyer’, or ‘choose your own lawyer not the one the coppers give you’. Readers of my occasional contributions on the CLSA e-group will recall the third iteration of that upon which I am currently working – can’t print it here.

I already have the tee shirt for Police Station work – ‘get Wedd out of bed’ and I wear it on every visit. I’ve got the website and email address and Facebook page too.

No one would advertise themselves like that, surely? Isn’t that what we thought before the unintended consequence of conditional fee agreements in civil work? The daytime TV channels are wall to wall with ads for claims farmers. When I fell and banged my side last year, my beloved 11y old daughter immediately advised me to go and see ‘injury lawyers for U’ and she knew no better.
• The adverts for own solicitor will be aggressive, unpleasant, unseemly, and only just this side of professional.
• It’s going to be disagreeable.
• Conflicts will be engineered to allow solicitor changes.
• Criminal case farmers will abound.
• Pity the poor clients faced with that lack of choice and then the overwhelming choice of competing claims.
• Pity the poor duty contract holders seeing their investment watered down and washed away.
You read it here first.

Those like you – yes, most of you – who will fail to win a contract, will have to be more assertive in your marketing and garnering clients. Free fags? Free trainers? Free court suit sir?

When the competition is just the duty firm with its ration of issued work they won’t care – why should they? Nurses in A&E don’t compete one hospital against another, or one shift against the next. They just deal with their allocation of ration issue patients and go home after work. The private providers advertise alongside the claims farmers in an unedifying race to the basement.

Remember when the only spectacles you could get were on the Nash? Remember deregulation of the opticians market? Sure, every optician can now advertise on telly for their product, but they are all in the same level marketplace and there is no state-run obligation to provide the basics. It’s all gone bling.

It will be like that for the duty scheme. Sure, you can have pebble glasses but who wants them? Sure, you can have the duty but who wants it?

Parallel markets, one state-run and one free market have staggered from one calamity to another. East Coast Mainline, interpreters, hospitals, prisons, Serco – you would really think that the Government would have worked it out by now, but apparently not. It offers gold but it’s only gilt.

A closing thought – I love the idea that the happy winners of duty contracts will give up half of their existing client base to allow them to service the duty contracts.

Daydream with me – On a full double decker bus the driver stops the bus and tells everyone sitting on the top deck to alight and wait by the roadside while he drives on, because he thinks that at the next stop someone else will board and want to stand downstairs. Downstairs is already full.

The idea of stopping 50% of my existing work to service a duty contract is mad. Dumping the upstairs customers to provide a worse service to those from the future is loopy. Ting ting! Hold tight please.

Steve Wedd