‘If people want a Rottweiler, they can go somewhere else.’

‘We, and all other advice agencies, need to work together. We will continue to offer legal aid for as long as we can. We might well be the last man standing when it comes to legal aid.’
Christina Blacklaws, director of family law with the Co-operative Legal Services, speaks to Jon Robins.

The Co-op last month officially launched the new family law arm of its business leading its foray into the world of legal services. Earlier this year the retailer became the first consumer brand to become an ABS (alternative business structure) and among the first three ABSs regulated by the Solicitor Regulation Authority. The retailer will be leading an aggressive move into the legal services market by developing a low-price, fixed fee tariff for family work.

  • Christina Blacklaws is director of family law at the Co-operative Legal Services. Prior to joining the Co-op, she ran her own specialist family law firm Blacklaws Davis which was the largest in the country. Her specialisation is in child-care law and mediation. Christina is also chair of the Law Society’s Legal Affairs and Policy Board and child care representative on the Law Society Council. She is the former chair of the Family Law Committee and Chief Assessor of the Children Panel.

 ‘At a time of major changes in legal aid, we believe it’s vital to make it as easy as possible for people to gain access to justice.  We are doing this by providing an innovative approach that will appeal to those who are currently reluctant to access family law services. This move is a natural extension to the range of professional services we currently provide within The Co-operative which includes banking, pharmacy and Funeralcare.’
Martyn Wates, deputy group chief executive of the Co-operative Group

___________________________________________

What does legal aid lawyer Christina Blacklaws make of LASPO? ‘I personally think it is an absolute tragedy,’ she replies; adding that the Co-op already does a lot of publicly-funded family work, including child protection, and is applying for more contracts in the current tender round. ‘We, and all other advice agencies, need to work together. We will continue to offer legal aid for as long as we can. We might well be the last man standing when it comes to legal aid.’

All about the consumer
Lawyers can expect a rapid expansion from the high street brand into the legal services market. The Co-op already has 500 people working in Bristol handling personal injury, probate, estate administration, Wills, employment and conveyancing. The family division based in Paddington has another 20 people (‘and we have room back for another 80 family lawyers’). ‘We have ambitious plans to grow the business to 3,000 lawyers over the next five years. All of our work will be about offering services to consumers. We aren’t interested in contract law.’

Will the family practice be based in London? ‘To start with,’ replies the lawyer; adding that the retailer is ‘not wedded entirely to a model of delivering through telephony and Internet’. However she believes that many clients actually want the accessibility as opposed to face-to-face services – a point apparently backed up by the retailer’s own research.

‘Nobody refused our services on the basis that it would be delivered in that way,’ she says. However the Co-op also has a store on every high street as well as a network of 1,000 bank branches (if you include its recent purchase of 632 Lloyds banks). The retailer is looking at piloting access to legal services through the bank branches.

‘We want to push the envelope in terms of how people access legal services. Maybe a virtual face-to-face might work for them if it was in the right sort of environment. Maybe people will go into to bank branches in the future and see their virtual lawyer or maybe they will do that from their living room. There are all sorts of ways that access to justice can be made much more available to people. What we do know is people outside of metropolitan areas have a hell of a job accessing specialist advice.’

The Co-operative ethos
The lawyer describes the Co-op’s commitment to legal aid as ‘a commitment from the heart of the business rather than it being something that has to have a real commercial aspect to it’.

Under LASPO there will be no legal aid unless there is evidence of domestic violence. ‘That is a trigger into the other services. We already do a lot of domestic violence work and we do a lot of child protection.’ As the lawyer puts it, she has ‘represented thousands of children in my career and we are getting a lot of referral work on that basis’.

‘We are hoping we’ll still be able to represent a lot of people on legal aid. For those who are in the terrible position where they were eligible but the areas of law have disappeared out of scope, we will continue to offer free legal advice supported by a website.’ She points out there are some 160 pages of family law content plus ‘a lot of self help tools’.

‘People can help themselves. It goes right back to co-operative principles, the core values around self-help and responsibility. What we are not about is overselling or indeed selling at all. People can go on it and get information from a well put together website.’

Everything at a fixed fee
But the retailer is also claiming to aim its services at a section of the population that traditionally fall outside of legal aid and who aren’t receiving legal advice anyway. ‘There is a huge unmet need from people who might, for example, think that solicitors aren’t for them, people who are worried about costs or losing control and who don’t access legal services anyway.’

Blacklaws reckons the Co-op can tap into this latent legal market by offering clients price certainty through a comprehensive tariff of fixed fees. ‘At last count, we had 88 services broken up vertically and horizontally. People can buy as little or as much as they need. We slice it and we dice it in a way that really works for people. So they know exactly what they are getting.’ Everything is a fixed fee, she adds.

The lawyer also wants the new family service to reflect a wider cultural change – to be, as she puts it, ‘future-focused and child-centered’. ‘We are keen not to push people beyond their comfort zone but to help people resolve their problems, find solutions rather than dancing around the problems.’

‘We want to make sure people are in the driving seat not just about the costs but about the conduct as well – rather than raising their anxieties and disempowering them.’

Isn’t it a failing on the part of traditional lawyers that it has taken the Legal Services Act (and the threat of increased competition) to persuade them that fixed fees in family work better suit anxious clients at what could be the most financially precarious time of their lives? ‘No. Most lawyers, especially legal aid lawyers, are just “nose to the grindstone”,’ she says. ‘They already have more people coming through the doors than they could possibly help.’

Blacklaws says she has had ‘the luxury of having had months to step back from that’ with the support of the Co-op which has allowed her ‘to take a wider more objective view about the service delivery model’.

‘I am not going to criticize people for not having done that. If private law legal practices had been supported in the same way that GP practices were – with help around capital infrastructure – then there would be a lot more innovation than there is at the moment today.’

Haven’t family lawyers let the side down by giving up legal aid? ‘No,’ the lawyer replies. ‘Frankly, it is completely understandable. It was a three-legged stool and at the moment there is only one leg left. It is being completely undermined.’

Power imbalance
Sir Nicholas Wall, the most senior family judge in England and Wales, recently predicted ‘a substantial increase’ in the numbers of people ending up in the family courts without lawyers or any proper advice as a result of LASPO and spoke of the ‘serious imbalance between an impoverished wife and a better-off husband’ at Resolution’s annual conference.

‘There is often great disparity in terms of the power balance within a relationship – when disparity is around the finances then there will be one person who will be the winner. I worry for the courts,’ says Blacklaws. ‘They are already totally overburdened and, because of child protection issues which are likely to be prioritised in terms of court listing, ordinary people wanting to sort out their finances will be pushed to the back of the queue. The husband will be there with a QC and a couple of divorce solicitors and the wife on her own. It’s almost impossible to balance that in the court process.’

The guiding principle
Christina Blacklaws talks of ‘the guiding principle’ for the Co-op’s move into the legal services being its ‘ethos, the ethical standards of the Co-op and everything that stands for’. That ethos is articulated in a brand new customer charter (launched last month)  – number one, being ‘no nasty surprises’ (‘We will provide a detailed, itemised quote before we start work.’) The Co-op ethic will also inform their lawyering even in the contentious area of divorce.

‘We are setting out our store – to be helpful, collaborative and to get the right solution. We want to get a solution.’

‘If people want a Rottweiler, they can go somewhere else,’ she says.

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About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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