The first not-for-profit criminal law firm opened its doors in Lambeth combining defence representation with outreach and project work to improve the criminal justice system.
Commons is the brainchild of three lawyers from human rights firm Bindmans – Rhona Friedman, co-founder of campaigning group the Justice Alliance, Sashy Nathan and Ben Stuttard.
It has been set up as community interest company (CIC), a hybrid structure somewhere between a limited liability company and a charity, that is designed for social enterprises and whose surpluses are reinvested in the business or in the community.
Its income has three strands – it has a normal legal aid contract for police station and magistrate’s court work and Crown Court and Court of Appeal cases, takes on private clients and attracts grant funding for its project, training and outreach work.
It is developing a training project with intermediaries to help lawyers to identity and support vulnerable clients at the police station, and doing outreach work with Brixton Advice Centre.
‘We don’t have share holders, no one owns the company and if it dissolves we have to give our assets to another CIC,’ explains Friedman. ‘We have to make enough money to pay ourselves and we pay ourselves salaries in the normal way.’
Against a background of swingeing legal aid cuts, criminal lawyers often quip that their firms operate on a not-for-profit model, but said Friedman: ‘Joking aside, this is a reaction to hard times. It’s very difficult to run a criminal defence firm that is sustainable never mind profitable.’
Its website states: ‘We measure our successes not in profit and shares but in the impact of our work on our clients, on the people and organisations we partner and the communities we engage with.’
Freidman said: ‘It might sound like a hippy dippy woolly-headed idea, but we believe there is a hard-headed commercial rationale to it.’
The name Commons, said Friedman, ‘has a political and philosophical resonance with what we hope to contribute, and reflects our social justice imperative.’
The firm, which aims to extend its reach across London and beyond, also hopes to add to its number. ‘We run as a cooperative, so we will always be more of a boutique firm,’ said Friedman. ‘If the model is successful, it’d be great if others took it on and ran with it.’
Innovative use of technology is one way the firm is seeking to ‘do the old stuff in new ways,’ explained Friedman. ‘Technology does allow new opportunities to do things in new ways, and the criminal justice system is becoming more digitised, which lends itself to a more technology-driven, small firm approach.’
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