Health check

I read with interest about the pressure on barristers identified in the Bar Council’s report Barristers’ Working Lives. How does that relate to solicitors?

While I have no doubt that there is more stress at the bar these days, consideration needs to be given to solicitors who practise in areas such as criminal law, child care work – indeed, probably in all types of work that the bar has highlighted.

I have no doubt the pressure to close major deals in the City and the desire of clients to succeed in commercial litigation is no less and probably greater than it used to be.

In my own field of criminal law, the bar should try covering police stations. They should try being in the office dealing with stressed telephone calls from clients; dealing with clients under the influence of drugs when they come in; and taking detailed instructions we then pass to the bar so that they receive the instructions in a somewhat sanitised form.

Solicitors spend their time ploughing through unused material in detail. This is work that the bar will often not do, because they say they are not paid to do it. We now face the proposed extension of our working hours, with the court sitting earlier and later. We may well need to be making bail applications in our pyjamas.

Solicitors must attend prisons, get through the machinations and inconsistencies of security, and deal with the delays that can occur in the production of your client from their cell 200 yards away. Solicitors have to deal with late opening of prisons, which may mean that because your visit has been shortened you need another visit. If you had managed to get in to see the client in a timely fashion in the first place, and they had been produced on time, the second visit would of course be unnecessary.

Post-conviction, we may have clients to visit because of Proceeds of Crime Act applications. In a recent case of mine, a client moved prison three times in two months.

The bar are very quick to say to solicitors, ‘can you do this please, I would like it by tomorrow morning’. While barristers may feel pressured, they have the option of coming to our side of the fence and doing the work we do. Very few choose to do so.

A solicitor in child care work or family work has had much face-to-face contact with their client. They have to deal with the emotional pressures that are imposed on them by the client when children are removed from their care, or when findings in relation to contact go against the client.

In criminal law, we have much more face-to-face contact with clients and one has to deal with the client’s family as well. It is the solicitor who is often telephoned by members of the family asking how they deal with the Prison Service to arrange visits.

These elements of our work are not remunerated, but as solicitors we take them on because we appreciate the difficulties that the lay client and, more particularly, the family find themselves in. They are faced with a barrier of officialdom that they are very often ill-equipped to deal with.

What career aspirations can a young solicitor realistically hold in the areas of criminal law or family law, or indeed any area of legally aided work? They can hope to achieve a partnership or directorship. But many have no such hopes – they simply do not want to assume the risk of running a firm.  

The problems that we solicitors face in dealing with staffing issues and conduct issues are also immense.

Cashflow is a critical factor, too, when the Legal Aid Agency does not pay the amount claimed and comes up with excuse after excuse, or does not pay in a timely fashion. And, of course, as law firms we have to deal with multiple regulators.

In criminal law, let me return to the vagaries of the police station. Call-outs come in the early hours of the morning and there are clients who have infectious diseases, such as hepatitis. Our weekends are disturbed by call-outs, for which our partners and families also suffer the consequences.

When courts decide at 4.30pm on a Monday that a case is to be taken out of the list for the following day, through a lack of judge or courtroom space, or other trials over-running, the bar does not face a similar problem. This is happening more and more. It is we solicitors who have to tell the client and witnesses, and try and negotiate and placate, and arrange a convenient new date. Very often this takes many phone calls and it is not productive work or work that in general we are remunerated for.

Some 52% of those doing crime surveyed by the bar said that they would not leave the profession. I suspect the percentage is far lower on our side. We are finding it increasingly difficult to enthuse young people to countenance a criminal law career. While the job is interesting, the remuneration is poor and the effect on one’s social life is high.

There are many other different pressures on solicitors worth alluding to briefly, such as:

  • money laundering issues which do not affect the bar;
  • ensuring compliance with accounts rules;
  • health and safety at work;
  • meeting specific time limits in respect of court orders, which barristers generally leave to solicitors;
  • early-morning meetings dealing with coverage at court, at very short notice, following overnight arrests. This invariably means that team leaders need to be in the office by 8.30am;
  • arranging and instructing agents; and
  • in private cases, ensuring the payment of fees from clients.

I could go on. For the bar to suggest by implication that solicitors are not pulling their weight is risible, frankly. The only thing solicitors no longer do that they did five or 10 years ago is consistently attending court to sit behind counsel.

In private work, clients expect to see much more work for their money and they want the job done far more quickly.

Both branches of the profession now have less job satisfaction than they did five or 10 years ago. When I first started in the law, 35 years ago, the partners had long lunch hours. Now both barristers and solicitors are short on lunch hours and long on laptops!

Ian Kelcey is co-chair of the Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee