Today I found this interesting post from Robert Ambrogi’s Law Sites blog. It concerns a site called “Expert Legal Advice“, where UK punters in search of legal advice call up a team of Indian lawyers in New Delhi and get advice from them. The site explains:
This site has been created to satisfy the demand for basic legal advice at a low fixed price. Few of us are sufficiently important to our solicitors to be confident in troubling them for simple advice. Even fewer want to pay them £250 an hour to take full instructions and provide advice in writing.
NL Advice is provided by a team of solicitors in New Delhi supported by the same precedents and sources as are available to UK solicitors. These are very bright people who have shown a real knowledge of English law before they even begin to look at legal source material.
The Net Lawman advice system fills a gap. The law compels solicitors to deal with advice in a complicated and expensive way. They do not choose the system. However, there are very many occasions when the advice you seek simply does not justify a bill for some hundreds or even thousands of pounds.
Because we are not solicitors, we do not offer a full range of legal services. But within the range we offer, we aim to provide a service second to none. You will find us fast, receptive and efficient. If you do then need help from a solicitor, the information and advice we have provided to you will enable you to make the best and fastest use of their expensive time.
I have explained in a few different previous posts that I think that legal representation is too expensive for most ordinary people. I certainly couldn’t have afforded to hire myself at the rates at which I used to be charged out in my last job. And I wasn’t working for a “Top Tier” firm either (although I have done so in the past). I suspect the six-minute billing unit is instrumental in pushing up legal bills, which is one of the reasons why I continue to call for its abolition. Six minute billing makes firms obsessed about meeting targets and maximising profits. It makes lawyers forget what their aim should be: to serve the client efficiently and effectively.
One of my first posts described a horrible situation where we were sued by our former landlords. I am an educated confident lawyer, a commercial litigator and experienced advocate. How much scarier would it be if you were a non-lawyer who could not afford legal representation? There is a real potential for unscrupulous individuals to use litigation to bully people. This is why I volunteer at a community legal centre; I want to help those who do not have the resources to obtain advice. Usually the answer does not take too long to come up with, and the same kinds of questions come up again and again.
However, the answer is not just to provide more funding for community legal centres, although that certainly helps. The problem is deeper than this. The fact is that the law is scary and arcane, and often people don’t know where to turn when a legal problem arises. Unfortunately, many lawyers like the law to be unknowable, because it keeps them in a job. I would like everyday people to have an opportunity to learn about and understand basic concepts of the law (contracts, mortgages, wills, personal injury and the like).
If a person cannot find adequate legal representation, they often have to represent themselves. I have written posts on litigants in person previously (here and here). Having worked in and around courts for most of my career, I have always found litigants in person very difficult to deal with. Litigants in person use up valuable court time, often with spurious arguments, but a judge cannot just dismiss them, because there may be an argument of value in there.
So, the Net Lawman site is right: there is a gap in the market for people who just want simple legal advice and don’t want to have to pay through the nose for it. Because I am a nerd, I couldn’t help thinking about Robert Ambrogi’s question. How can these guys give quasi-legal advice? This seems like a worrying kind of arrangement to me.
I think Net Lawman tries to avoid infringing UK law by explicitly stating on the website that the advisers are not lawyers and they do not purport to give advice as qualified solicitors.
Section 20 of the Solicitors’ Act 1974 (UK) (“the Act”) says that no unqualified person is to act as a solicitor:
(1) No unqualified person shall–
(a) act as a solicitor, or as such issue any writ or process, or commence, prosecute or defend any action, suit or other proceeding, in his own name or in the name of any other person, in any court of civil or criminal jurisdiction; or
(b) act as a solicitor in any cause or matter, civil or criminal, to be heard or determined before any justice or justices or any commissioners of Her Majesty’s revenue.
(2) Any person who contravenes the provisions of subsection (1)–
(a) shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for not more than two years or to a fine or to both; and
(b) shall be guilty of contempt of the court in which the action, suit, cause, matter or proceeding in relation to which he so acts is brought or taken and may be punished accordingly…
I presume that the advisers would not be able to issue proceedings on behalf of clients, and if a client had a problem that needed a litigator, he or she would be referred to a litigator so as not to contravene this section. Sections 22 and 23 provide that certain documents may not be provided to clients by unqualified persons for reward. Presumably the advisers would not be authorised to provide such documents, and again, a client who required such a document would be referred to a solicitor.
Section 21 of the Act says that an unqualified person is not to pretend to be a solicitor: but in this case, the advisers are not pretending to be solicitors – they clearly state that they are not solicitors.
Furthermore, the advisers are protected because they are not within the jurisdiction. Section 87 of the Act provides that “solicitor” means a solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. These advisers are not purporting to be solicitors of the Supreme Court of England and Wales, they just purport to have some detailed knowledge of the jurisdiction, and to be qualified lawyers within their own jurisdiction (India). It’s a fine line to draw.
Nevertheless, I was wondering whether this arrangement complies with the International Code of Ethics 1988 established by the International Bar Association. Rule 20 of the Code states:
Lawyers should not permit their professional services or their names to be used in any way which would make it possible for persons to practice law who are not legally authorised to do so. Lawyers shall not delegate to a legally unqualified person not in their employ and control any functions which are by the law or custom of the country in which they practice only to be performed by a qualified lawyer.
Presumably, Net Lawman would argue that the advisers are in their employ and control, and thus they do not infringe this rule.
Although, as I have outlined above, I have some sympathy for the argument that even the most simple legal services are not within the grasp of ordinary people, I am not sure that outsourcing to Indian “quasi-lawyers” is the answer. It seems fraught with risk, particularly as the advisers are on the other end of the phone. I’m a big fan of face-to-face meetings with a client. Maybe lawyers need to reconsider how they charge, so that they do not lose business to organisations such as this. Of course, we’re entitled to earn our living! (Lawyers are human too, we really are). But we should also remember that our function is to mediate disputes between people, and that we should not put our services too far out of the financial range of ordinary people.
For more thoughts on this topic, see John Flood’s post here at Random Academic Thoughts.