The legal aid agenda

The year opened with the news of yet another merger – that of Withers and Crossman Block. Meanwhile, the Legal Aid Bill came under attack from all sides.

A survey of legal aid firms found that 40 per cent had either given up or were seriously considering giving up criminal legal aid work because the payments were inadequate; 27 per cent said the same for matrimonial work.

Over 80 per cent of respondents gave inadequate remuneration as the reason for giving up criminal legal aid work, and it was the main reason in relation to all other types of work.

The Lawyer went weekly from 19 May, but there was still resistance to speaking to the press, including The Lawyer. One leading M&A partner from a Big Five firm said: “I don't know what our gross fee income is, and I wouldn't tell you if I did.”

McKenna & Co invested £1m in an NBI computer system, as did Cameron Markby. Newly-merged Lovell White Durrant and Evershed & Tomkinson hit that magic figure in June.

Merger activity was on the rise as Beachcrofts merged with Stanleys & Simpson North. but City firm Bartletts de Reya disintegrated to become Mishcon de Reya, with the senior partner of Bartletts, Denis Ross, joining SJ Berwin, and others going to Rowe & Mawe. Richard Linsell, a senior partner at Rowe & Mawe, commented: “Firms that have done a lot of mergers perhaps get this kind of fluidity. Problems do develop when there isn't a community of interest among the partners.”

AV Hammond & Co merged with Last Suddards to form Hammond Suddards. In Bristol, Stanley Wasbrough amalgamated with Veale Benson to form Veale Wasbrough. Alsop Stevens merged with Wilkinson Kimbers as a “City-type” firm – although partner Roger Lane-Smith was quoted as saying: “We don't want to be one of the Big Eight law factories.”

Also in Liverpool, Weightmans and Rutherfords merged to form Weightman Rutherfords; and Lace Mawer, Dibb Lupton & Broomhead, Lester Aldridge, Thomas Eggar Verral Bowles, Wynne Baxter Godfree, Field Fisher Waterhouse and Fladgate Fielder were all created by merger.

Preparations to move into Europe began with Pannone Blackburn merging with Belgian, French, Italian and Spanish lawyers, with the first stage to be called Pannone DeBacker and chaired by Rodger Pannone.

The First Division Associates commenced legal action against the then Director of Public Prosecutions Allan Green QC (whatever happened to him?) over the CPS's plan to use unqualified clerks for minor case vetting. It won the case but the DPP considered appealing.

Lawyers were ordered to pay a special levy to the Law Society's compensation fund following a sharp rise in fraud. Claims in 1987 reached £5.7m compared with £2.4m in 1986, with one solicitor found responsible for applications to the fund totalling more than £1.7m – which accounted for more than half of the year's increase.

The Legal Aid Board was set up, chaired by John Pitts, a retired industrialist with no legal background. The board was comprised of 12 members, of whom only two were solicitors: Peter Soar and Lyn Devonald.

The Lord Chancellor's Civil Justice Review was announced in June, and calls for a family court later in the year were rejected by the Government.

National firm known initially as the Eversheds Group was modelled on accountants Peat Marwick McLintock, with firms in Manchester, Sheffield, Norwich and Birmingham.

The British Academy of Experts was launched.

The year 1988 also saw the first black silks, as barristers Leonard Woodley and John Roberts were appointed as QCs. Meanwhile, the Law Society appointed Jerry Garvey as ethnic minorities careers officer.

The Marre Committee reported and concluded inter alia that the creation of a single profession would be against the public interest.

Diana Guy, partner at Theodore Goddard, said: “The committee has laboured but seems to have produced a mouse. The nettle of restrictive practices does not seem to have been grasped. We are not talking about fusion, but about competition. Solicitors want to exercise the competence which their intellectual abilities should give them.”

Sir Gordon Borrie considered asking the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to look into restrictive practices in the legal profession if the society and Bar council did not take action following the Marre report.

And 1989 looked set to be even more eventful…