As legal director at the OFT Consumer Market Group, Jason Freeman is the man leading the charge in the battle for consumers’ rights. By James Swift
It is not every lawyer who gets to leave the office at the end of the day knowing they have made the world a better place. Sure, sealing a billion-pound merger or securing financing for a client is challenging and rewarding, but clear-cut decisions over right and wrong rarely come into it.
But as legal director of the Office of Fair Trading’s (OFT) Consumer Market Group (CMG), Jason Freeman has the venerable task of making things better for UK consumers: he investigates dodgy estate agents, internet scammers and used-car salesman. Talk about job satisfaction.
“We look at anything we think will have the potential to affect the economic interests of consumers,” says Freeman. “Then we work out all the threats and ask where we’re going to achieve the most results. It’s very satisfying knowing that you’re going to achieve something that will benefit consumers.”
The CMG is less than a year old. The 10-lawyer team was created in June 2009 and is one of four market groups within the OFT, the other three being goods, services and infrastructure.
Freeman was appointed CMG legal director in December 2009 after a year as head of the group’s forerunner, although he has been with the OFT longer, joining in 2005 as a legal adviser and working his way up the ranks.
“Before that I was at the bar,” says Freeman, “doing bits and pieces: crime, personal injury, civil disputes – different things.”
As well as managing projects, Freeman works to ensure that his group takes a joined-up approach to cases, liaising with other groups within the OFT as part of a strategy to be more efficient, and taking on the highest-impact cases.
“The day-to-day job is tremendously varied,” he explains. “It’s not just one small thing we work on – it’s lots of different areas of law, from pure contract to public interest areas. I’ve had to get on top of all different areas of law and there’s a lot of European interaction with enforcement too. And we’re involved in the drafting of legislation.”
Even talking about the worst aspects of the job, Freeman cannot separate himself from his enthusiasm.
“The worst thing,” says Freeman, “and this is going to sound cheesy, but there’s too much to do. The job’s a victim of its own success because it’s too interesting, but I have to go home and see the wife and kids some time.”
In January Freeman and his team scored one of their biggest victories to date, securing a High Court order against Foxtons, banning the estate agent from using certain terms in its landlord agreements.
The order followed a High Court judgment in July 2009 that found that charging landlords commission on properties they no longer owned, or when they sold their property to a tenant, contravened the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations Act 1999.
It was an unequivocal victory for the OFT, with the High Court accepting all its complaints, and the decision is one that will reverberate throughout the estate agent industry. But it was not all plain sailing getting there.
“We did have some setbacks,” admits Freeman. “At the interim hearing one of the High Court judges struck out part of our claim saying that he couldn’t stop Foxtons from enforcing the terms in current contacts, only from adding in future contracts. I thought that couldn’t be right, as it goes against the whole purpose of the unfair terms directive, but we took it to the Court of Appeal and they reversed the decision.”
The Foxtons case has been a personal highlight for Freeman and it has shown just how effective the OFT can be.
CMG is involved in a number of new projects, such as working on an inter-group investigation of consumer protection online which includes looking at online targeting of advertising and pricing. However, there are also less sophisticated areas demanding the CMG’s attention.
“We’re also looking at sectors where we get a lot of complaints,” says Freeman. “For instance, we’ve noticed that in secondhand car sales there were a lot of complaints and we’ve done a study that’s coming to a conclusion soon.”
Wannabe Arthur Daleys had better watch out.
Name: Jason Freeman
Company: Office of Fair Trading (OFT)
Position: Legal director, Consumer Market Group (CMG)
Industry: Consumer rights
Reporting to: Heather Clayton, senior director, CMG
Legal capability: 10 (in CMG)
Jason Freeman’s CV
1995-98: MA, Emmanuel College, Cambridge
1998-99: Dip Law, City University
1999-2000: BVC, Inns of Court School of Law
2000-01: Pupillage, Falcon Chambers and Enterprise Chambers
2002-05: Independent Practitioner, 9 King’s Bench Walk and Phoenix Chambers
2005-08: Legal adviser, OFT
2008-present: Legal director, OFT CMG