The Land Registry’s annual report has revealed the impact of the faltering housing market on the government body, with its core business down by 75%. The Land Registry’s annual report published today shows that its income from fees for the year 2008/09 fell to £308m, compared to £483m in the previous year. Its total expenditure was £380m, compared to £400m for 2007/8. The accounts show it made a loss during the year of £130m. In response to the stagnation in the property market, the Land Registry reduced its staff by more than 1,000 through a process of voluntary redundancy, early retirement and transfer to other government departments, at a cost of £50.3m. The report said it had cut back spending, raised its fees and reviewed contracts. Money-saving measures include using second-class post and closing the restaurants in all its offices. With the expectation of a slow property market in the next financial year, the Land Registry said work on reducing its staff, estate and other overhead costs will continue. The Registry paid out an increased amount in compensation due to errors on the register – £10m for 1,364 claims, compared with £9m for 1,072 claims in 2007/8. It also saw an increase in the number of claims and the amount paid as a result of fraud, such as the registration of fraudulent transfers and charges. The figure rose to £5m for 62 claims, up from nearly £4m for 60 claims in 2007/8. It said it had reviewed its anti-fraud procedures during the year and introduced new measures intended to counteract registration fraud. It also recovered £89,235 under its statutory rights of recourse, compared with £72,536 last year. The report also noted that the number of registered titles held on the Land Registry’s database reached 22 million during the year, the first mortgage or e-charge was signed electronically, and for the first time it processed more voluntary than compulsory first registrations. Its campaign to encourage owners of unregistered property to voluntarily sign up to the Land Registry achieved its target of registering 325,000 hectares. Peter Collis, chief land registrar and chief executive, said: ‘While it has been one of the most difficult periods in our 147 year history, we are looking forward to implementing new plans which will see Land Registry emerge as an even more customer-focused organisation.’ ‘In the future we envisage a smaller, leaner, more customer-focused organisation dealing with many applications electronically and providing an expanding range of products and services to customers,’ he said.
Having spent the afternoon hearing how the British government is undermining the right to custodial legal advice by reducing lawyers’ fees, Clive Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve, took to the stage to cheer up delegates at the Law Society’s conference on legal advice at the police station last week. Stafford Smith began: ‘If you think it’s bad here, it’s worse in America’. He recounted tales of a defence lawyer who fell asleep during his client’s capital trial, another who got banged up because he was drunk – but that time in the cells was the only time he spoke to his client. He also told of a third-year law student representing a man on trial for his life, whose first words to the judge were: ‘Can I have a moment to compose myself – I’ve never been in a courtroom before.’ Stafford Smith went on to recount ridiculous US Supreme Court decisions. One determined that proving your innocence was not relevant to appealing a death sentence, so long as your trial was fair. Another upheld a custodial sentence for a man jailed for consensual oral sex with his wife in private. ‘This is the sort of insanity that goes on in the US,’ he said. But he also questioned some practices on this side of the pond. Why can’t we talk to jurors, he asked, and why does a defendant (who is supposedly presumed innocent) sit in a dock, rather than next to his lawyer? Then when it comes to cash, British criminal lawyers may think they’re paid badly, but it turns out they are positively well-heeled compared with their US colleagues. Stafford Smith said he once received $1,000 for a capital case which involved 680 lawyer hours, amounting to $1.47 an hour (92p). He sued under the federal minimum wage laws and won.
Last week I wrote about the role that automation could play in delivering legal services to the public, using products that firms of all sizes could buy in. Wills and employment were the two areas that I mentioned, relating arguments that, although margins in this area might fall as automation increases, these basic services could ultimately still provide firms with a good return, as they were an opportunity to offer a product at reduced cost, enhancements on the core offering, and the chance to market other services to these clients. Since then I’ve seen the demonstration of one of these products – one aimed at smaller firms that should soon be generally available. The cost looks reasonable, the software seems flexible, and crucially it has the capture of client data, and follow-up steps with clients, built into it. I can’t be sure it is the answer, but any workable solution should do all these things. The top four main types of instruction this automation can handle are wills, employment, partnership agreements and share transactions. The cost for using each of these types is mostly around £300 per product per month, plus £50 per practitioner who uses it per month. That seems accessible for most practices. The demonstration I saw showed how a practitioner can vary the programme to add their own preferred clauses, and also showed how the process saved time. The solicitor wasn’t absent from the process, but could both supervise it and concentrate on client service. The programme also forced the solicitor taking the enquiry to record client contact, and pushed them to follow up that contact to secure the instruction, or ask how else the firm might help the client. Such products deserve the attention of law firms as they come to market. I’m not sure ‘commoditised’ is the right word for the product I saw demonstrated – although a large part of it could be described as ‘industrialised’; it was definitely a tool for a traditional lawyer to deploy, rather than a substitute for that lawyer. Visit the Gazette’s blogs page for more In Business blogs
Judges have slammed government plans to cut legal aid, but also criticised publicly funded lawyers who bring ‘unmeritorious’ public law claims, and proposed limiting legal aid in judicial review cases. In a response to the government’s consultation on legal aid published last week, the Judges’ Council said public funding should be retained for most public law cases, but there should be ‘significant refinement’ to judicial review claims, particularly in immigration and asylum cases. The lord chief justice Lord Judge, who authored the response on behalf of the judiciary, said the existing legal aid merits test does not effectively filter out unmeritorious claims. Out of some 12,500 judicial review claim forms issued in the Administrative Court in 2010, Judge said around 7,500 concerned asylum and immigration. In the great majority of those cases, there had been an adverse decision by the secretary of state giving rise to an unsuccessful appeal to the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal or first-tier tribunal. Judge said money spent on judicial review in these cases, which is the ‘second, or even third or fourth bite of the cherry’, was ‘largely wasted’. He said: ‘Most claims fail. Most of the claims which fail are without merit, and many are wholly abusive of the court’s process.’ The judiciary recommended that in the majority of immigration and asylum cases, legal aid should only be available for an appeal to the first-tier tribunal. Judge said that the intervention of publicly funded lawyers does not prevent unmeritorious claims being brought. ‘Often bad claims are advanced by lawyers, which an individual would not have thought of himself,’ he said. The lord chief justice said several times a year, decisions of the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court on cases which raise questions of principle produce ‘scores or even hundreds’ of ‘hopeless’ claims, supposedly founded on the same principles. He said such claims are ‘generally devised by lawyers’. Judge added: ‘Publicly funded lawyers currently advance many unmeritorious claims which would not be advanced in the absence of such legal representation.’ To ensure legal aid is spent only on meritorious cases, Judge suggested certain categories of claim should be excluded from the scope of legal aid, subject to a means of identifying those that deserve to be publicly funded. He said public funding should ‘plainly not’ be available for cases including: oral renewals of applications for permission for judicial review, when the judge who refused permission on the papers has certified the claim as totally without merit; challenges to state decisions when an alternative remedy is available; and challenges to state decisions which do not affect an individual’s vital interests or involve an abuse of power. Of the cases that occur most frequently, Judge said legal aid should be available for claims including: first time asylum and humanitarian protection appeals to the first-tier tribunal and beyond; control orders; and committal for contempt. The judiciary acknowledged that this more restrictive approach to the availability of legal aid in public law cases would lead to more claims being brought by litigants in person, but predicted that the overall number of claims would fall. Criticising the government’s reforms, Judge warned that the proposals to cut fees and remove much of civil work from scope would lead to a ‘huge increase’ in unrepresented litigants, which would have a knock-on effect on the quality of justice and administration of the justice system. He said the proposals would damage access to justice, undermine the work and viability of community advice agencies, and act as a disincentive for advocates to undertake publicly funded work. Judge added that the proposals to remove clinical negligence from the scope of legal aid were not justified, as the victims are almost always vulnerable; the claims involve sophisticated and complex litigation beyond the ability of anyone to pursue as a litigant in person; and given the heavy financial outlay to get expert evidence to support claims, there was unlikely to be a viable alternative source of funding. Judge expressed concern about the ‘excessive’ proportion of public money spent on a small number of very-high-cost criminal cases, but was critical of a number of the proposed cuts to payments for criminal work, which he said would mean talented advocates would no longer practice criminal law. On the government’s plan to limit the use of leading counsel, Judge said there was already a reluctance among junior advocates practising in criminal law to apply for silk, because they ‘see no future for Queen’s Counsel in publicly funded criminal work’. The judiciary’s full response can be seen on the official website.
The killing of Bin Laden was a cathartic experience for the US, and brought a degree of welcome closure to those bereaved on 9/11. In the US especially, it was an occasion more for celebration than reflection. In the aftermath, however, a debate was gathering momentum this week about the implications for the rule of law of the manner of Bin Laden’s demise. Geoffrey Robertson QC penned a thoughtful piece in the Independent. He claimed it was ‘absurd’ for former law professor Barack Obama to claim ‘justice was done’ by means of summary execution. The best way to demystify the Bin Laden myth and debunk his cause would have been for the UN Security Council to try him in The Hague, with international judges providing a fair trial. Hand-wringing liberalism, some will retort – this is war. Yet, as Robertson recalled, Britain’s government wanted the Nazi leadership executed within hours of capture in 1945, but were restrained by US president Truman. Justice had to be seen to be done, and was – at Nuremberg. What has changed? Is it possible, or moral, to safeguard the rule of law while applying it selectively? And, to paraphrase another commentator, is there any reasonable basis for assuming that due criminal process and the rule of law are anathema to effective counterterrorism? Hard questions, deserving of an answer.
Obiter loves the Antiques Roadshow, though it is wonderfully disingenuous. Tweed-clad residents of the shires slyly profess to a fascination with ancient bric-a-brac, when all most of them are really interested in is whether their late auntie’s mysterious objet d’art is a hidden masterpiece that can be flogged to pay Freddie’s tuition fees. This week we are going all Fiona Bruce ourselves, to solve what Sherlock Holmes would have called a ‘three-pipe problem’. Gunther Young of HKB Wiltshires in Norfolk has asked for our help in solving the mystery of a ceramic jug in the possession of local antiquarian Malcolm Ferrow. It bears the following legend: ‘As a Memento on an Excursion to Yarmouth in august 1811 of the great pleasure experienc’d. and the conviviality, good humour and Friendship, which uninteruptedly reign’d , this Jug with six others were purchased by SEVEN LAWYERS who composed the party.’ Messrs Young and Ferrow would like to know if any of the six other jugs have survived and if anyone has any information about the jugs or the lawyers. What were they all doing in Yarmouth that would possibly warrant the production of commemorative pottery? Obiter’s theory is that it was a Georgian stag party: Norwich City versus Ipswich Town at Carrow Road and on to the seaside to go clubbing. If you can help, do get in touch with Obiter or indeed Mr Young.
Join our LinkedIn Legal Aid sub-group The government has made its first tiny concession in the House of Lords debate on proposed legal aid reforms, agreeing to table a ‘technical amendment’ to ensure all special educational needs (SEN) cases remain in scope. But justice minister Lord McNally gave little hope that other changes will be made as the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill goes through the committee stage in the Lords. On Wednesday, the fourth day sitting in committee, the small concession followed an amendment tabled by Liberal Democrat Lord Clement-Jones (pictured) to ensure that young people aged between 16 and 25 with SEN continue to be eligible for legal aid when appealing against decisions made about special educational provision. Currently the bill makes provision for cases to be covered only for children under 16. Clement-Jones said: ‘Removing access to legal aid for young people aged 16 to 25 with SEN, as the bill currently does, is inconsistent with the government’s position on the importance of the rights of young people with SEN.’ ‘I trust that this is an oversight rather than a deliberate move to exclude these young people with SEN from the scope of legal aid.’ Responding for the government, Liberal Democrat Lord Wallace of Tankerness said the intention is to cover all matters that can legitimately be classed as SEN issues, and promised a technical amendment at the report stage. Several peers including a former president of the Family Division, Lady Butler-Sloss, a former director of public prosecutions, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, and a former attorney general Lady Scotland, called for a wider definition of domestic violence, to prevent victims being denied access to legal advice and representation. Macdonald warned that the bill’s approach to domestic violence risked ‘rolling back decades of progress’ in understanding the crime that he called ‘an absolute scourge’. He said: ‘We must have a bill with the modern definition of that crime and including provision for those who may be too scared or too desperate to call the police. As we all understand, domestic violence brings a cycle of damage and despair that is deeply destructive and anti-social.’ McNally said he would look at the arguments that had been made and ‘think very hard’ about the issues before the report stage. Responding to another amendment tabled by Butler-Sloss, to provide legal aid for victims of trafficking, Tankerness said other avenues were available to give help, including the exceptional funding scheme in the bill and government-funded support provided by the Salvation Army. Other amendments were met with the government’s argument that it has to prioritise funding. McNally confirmed that domestic child abduction cases are not within scope because they do not have the complexity involved in international cases. The bill is back before the committee on Tuesday, when amendments relating to exceptional funding arrangements, police station advice, the telephone gateway and technical issues relating to the decision-making powers and processes, will be among issues debated.
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Subscribe now for unlimited access Stay at the forefront of thought leadership with news and analysis from award-winning journalists. Enjoy company features, CEO interviews, architectural reviews, technical project know-how and the latest innovations.Limited access to building.co.ukBreaking industry news as it happensBreaking, daily and weekly e-newsletters Subscribe to Building today and you will benefit from:Unlimited access to all stories including expert analysis and comment from industry leadersOur league tables, cost models and economics dataOur online archive of over 10,000 articlesBuilding magazine digital editionsBuilding magazine print editionsPrinted/digital supplementsSubscribe now for unlimited access.View our subscription options and join our community To continue enjoying Building.co.uk, sign up for free guest accessExisting subscriber? LOGIN Get your free guest access SIGN UP TODAY