We charge less than most high street firms do, especially for persons who are on a low income. That is part of our ethos.
Castle Park Solicitors was created as a community interest company in 2012 and received an ABS license in 2013. The firm offers legal services in the areas of family law and immigration. Qualified low-income clients can access the firm’s services at half its standard rate, and pay in monthly installments. Castle Park Solicitors is wholly owned by the Community Advice and Law Service (CALS), a Leicester-based not-for-profit organization and registered charity. The profits of Castle Park Solicitors are used to support the activities of CALS, which provides support and advice free of charge in the areas of housing, welfare benefits and debt. Castle Park Solicitors’ Practice Manager Glenda Terry is not a lawyer.
The principal driver behind the creation of Castle Park Solicitors was the huge reduction in scope of legal aid that took effect in the UK in 2013. The firm has two principal purposes. The first purpose is to provide low cost, good quality legal services in the areas of family law and immigration, notably to persons who otherwise would have been eligible for legal aid. The second purpose is to provide an alternative source of income for CALS, in order to compensate for its loss of legal aid funding and to otherwise reduce its reliance upon government subsidies and grants.
Not long after we filed our application for an ABS license, the restrictions preventing in-house lawyers employed by not-for-profit organizations from charging for work were lifted. In that light, arguably CALS no longer needed an ABS license. Nevertheless, we’ve found it useful to have one because it allows us to operate a legal practice separately from the other activities of CALS.
We offer some drop-in services free of charge. Most notably, however, to qualified low income clients, we offer what we call our “access to justice” package, which means that we charge half of our standard hourly rates. Of course, this is not profitable for us, so we need to balance it against services we provide to other clients at the full rate.
Our standard rates are considerably lower than most high street firms. We keep our overheads low, and the salaries we pay our small staff are lower than what they could obtain in the private sector.
We have a Board of Directors composed of four persons. Two are also Directors of CALS — neither is a lawyer. The other two Directors are our COLP (Compliance Officer for Legal Practice) and one other person who is a solicitor but is not practicing at the moment.
It has taken us some time to establish ourselves. We compete with other small law firms, and we compete on the same grounds that they do. That is, our experience has shown us that our ethos — our status as a community interest company and our connection to CALS — does not mean a great deal to most clients. They are simply looking for good quality and prompt legal advice at an affordable price.
Today I have two roles — I am Practice Manager at Castle Park Solicitors, and I am Development Manager at CALS. I am not a lawyer. My prior experience is with law centers, which in the UK are centers that have provided free legal work largely funded by the (now significantly reduced) legal aid system.
For me, the key issue with respect to access to justice is whether people can afford it. The real tragedy, in my opinion, is the recent legislation in the UK that significantly reduced the scope of legal aid — that has had a huge effect on access to justice. No structure, ABS or not, can fully remedy that.
That being said, Castle Park Solicitors has improved access to justice in that we charge less than most high street firms do, especially for persons who are on a low income. That is part of our ethos. Not all firms, including not all ABSs, have that ethos.
The 2007 Legal Services Act opened up all sorts of possibilities for creating new kinds of structures to provide legal services. That includes the one that we have created — what was important for us was that the firm no longer needed to be owned in whole or in part by a lawyer. I don’t think that the Act was adopted for the express purpose that it be used by charities to create law firms, but it did create the only mechanism available to CALS to do that. At the end of the day, of course, ABS or not, we are all businesses and we all need to make a profit.
During the first year or so of our operations, I got the impression that we were regulated much more closely than we would have been if we were a traditional law firm. For example, we had an audit during our first six months, when we needed to demonstrate to the SRA that we have in place the appropriate procedures to ensure regulatory compliance. Additionally, with outcomes based regulation, the COLP, and I as the COFA (Compliance Officer for Finance and Administration) are obliged to report material breaches of the Practice Rules to the SRA.
Theoretically speaking, of course it is true that when a law firm is owned by nonlawyers, the nonlawyers may exert pressures that could result in ethical or other violations of the rules, or impede the COLP and COFA in their duty to report serious risks or regulatory breaches to the SRA. That being said, I cannot say that has been our experience (of course I cannot speak for other firms). Our Directors, including the nonlawyers, have a good understanding of and appreciation for the rules under which law firms are required to operate and they have accepted on both a formal and a real basis to comply with them. Further, as a small organization, it has been easy to put in place procedures that enable us to identify and report risks in a timely manner.
 In the UK, this is a type of company that is designed for social enterprises and that seeks to use its profits and assets for the public good.
To download a pdf of this and the other stories, please click below.