2016-12-02en-GB

Be careful what you pay for - a cautionary tale

This is an article that I have been thinking about writing for a while. What stopped me was the concern that readers would think “Well he would say that wouldn’t he!” Some recent experiences though have compelled me to put finger to keyboard because frankly I’m appalled at some of the things I’ve heard.

I have recently received a number of enquiries and instructions from drivers who have become disillusioned with one or other of the several self-styled “national” road traffic firms. An internet search will quickly take you to firms who proclaim to be the best and who will “get you off” using knowledge and legal procedures known only to them. They offer representation wherever you live and whichever court you will be attending.

This is exactly what you want to hear when you are desperate and afraid of the consequences of a prosecution. It has fuelled the widespread belief that whatever the case against you, there is an answer to it as long as you choose one of these firms, and spend enough money with them.

I can tell you that there will be very many disappointed drivers whose expectations have been raised and dashed, and who will have spent thousands of pounds achieving very little, if indeed anything at all.

In my experience clients want a trusting relationship with the solicitor who will advise them realistically, who will be available personally throughout the conduct of the prosecution and then represent them in court. No client wants to be treated like a commodity, and yet in the scramble to draw in desperate motorists charged with serious offences, this is what can happen. Just be aware of how it might work.

My experience with disaffected clients has provided a fascinating insight into how some firms work and what they charge for. Most of these have been drink driving cases or failure to provide a breath or urine specimen, but it applies to any road traffic offence.

When you instruct one of these firms you may be appointed a “caseworker” who will be your point of contact with the firm and the person you must call whenever you want advice. Caseworkers I have encountered have varying degrees of experience and legal know how and some plainly have little of either. Your caseworker’s job is to ensure that the various administrative elements of your case are performed including instructing a barrister to represent you in court. They are called case workers because they are not solicitors. In most firms I have encountered caseworkers don’t know the law and cannot therefore provide legal advice. These firms are often just expensive administrators.

I have seen the dissatisfaction that stems from an impersonal relationship with “caseworkers” who can’t provide advice.

When searching online for a lawyer who specialises in drink driving cases it’s important to be a smart shopper.

Firstly, be very careful about success rates and claims to get you off the charge. Success rates are overrated. Unlike financial service companies, solicitors do not have to warn you that past successes are no guarantee of future ones, and I think that is regrettable.

I see web sites claiming to possess access to laws, procedure and tactics known only to them and which can be deployed to “get you off”. This is also misleading. I am not aware of any other area of legal practice where solicitors making claims of this nature are allowed to get away with it.

Secondly, be careful to understand exactly what you are paying for.

With some firms this is how it works, and I will use an anonymised case as an example.

The lady who approached me in some distress was a driver living in the South East. She had been charged with drink driving and had spoken with a few solicitors and decided to instruct Firm X based well away from her home and the court. She agreed an all in fee for Firm X to do the work. Let’s say it was £3,000.

No one from Firm X could travel to court because it was too far to come and so they appointed a junior barrister to meet her at court and to conduct the first hearing. In the meantime she had been communicating with her “solicitors” by telephone and e mail only, and because the caseworkers employed by the firm to take her calls were not qualified she was unable to get any legal advice from them. By the date of her first hearing Firm X had not actually undertaken any legal work. Their work was administrative and limited to passing papers from client to barrister. They were a go between, but an expensive one. It took her a while to realise that she was paying for this. She was distressed because she could not get anyone in the firm to answer legal questions. When she pressed them, they became defensive and unhelpful.

In my example the junior barrister was quite rightly paid a fee for attending court, and it was in the order of £350 plus VAT, totalling £420. The barrister was paid and Firm X kept the rest for its administrative work.

If your case has a number of court appearances, you may well get a different representative each time, but the charging principle remains the same.

That to me just didn’t seem right. The client did not think so either and changed.

Now tell me if I’m missing something. If you are paying significant sums to a solicitor for legal advice, don’t you expect to be advised by a qualified solicitor? Don’t you expect your solicitor to be an expert in this work and to be the person who you meet to talk through the charge? Don’t you expect that the solicitor will appear in court with you on each occasion?

If your answer to these questions is “YES”, then you need to be careful.

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