Driving force

No other organisation has done more towards reforming the provision of legal services than RAC Legal Services. Joanne Harris talks to its legal chief about playing the long game

Over the past year or so, the concept of ‘Tesco law’ has become a familiar one. But in actual fact, the term should probably be ‘RAC law’. It is the motoring organisation that has led the way in campaigning for a reform in legal services.

The RAC’s legal services department is the section of the organisation that provides legal advice and services to RAC members. It is the first point of contact for members with personal injury (PI) claims and also acts as an underwriter, providing before-the-event legal expenses insurance. Altogether, the department deals with 170,000 phone calls a year from members wanting help, underwrites 2.4 million policies and sees 110,000 claims come through its doors.

Gulliford, a barrister by training, joined RAC Legal Services in 1994, manning the phones on a temporary contract while searching for a pupillage. But fate dictated a different career path.

Gulliford was given a case to oversee that was heading to the Court of Appeal. The retained barristers were confident that the RAC would win. But, as Gulliford predicted, the RAC lost and, thanks to his correct assessment of the situation, he landed a full-time role with the company. Three and a half years later, via a short stint in the corporate legal team during the RAC’s takeover by Lex, Gulliford was promoted to a management role.

Now he is in charge of the 200-strong RAC Legal Services team, including its lawyers, paralegals, legal executives and support staff. He coordinates the 24-strong panel of external advisers, which is spread geographically across the country and which includes Blake Lapthorn Linnell, Clarke Willmott, DMH Solicitors and Ward Hadaway.

The panel has not changed since Gulliford joined the RAC, save for the addition of Henderson Boyd Jackson in Edinburgh. The panel is audited twice a year to maintain quality, and that quality, says Gulliford, is one of the reasons the RAC has grown and developed over the past decade. “They’ve been a real strength,” he adds.

The RAC’s fight for permission to run its own law firm started around five years ago when Gulliford went to see the Law Society. He wanted to ask for assistance in setting up his department as, essentially, an extra external panel firm.

The Law Society, though, refused Gulliford’s request, arguing that it was impossible under existing rules that guarantee self-protection for lawyers. That left the RAC with little option but to continue working with a ‘halfway house’ solution of a 20-strong in-house practice handling the contentious work on liquidated damages claims. These number approximately 90,000 each year.

Despite the Law Society’s refusal to give the RAC the green light, Gulliford and his team kept an eye on the situation. They watched as the Office of Fair Trading and the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) produced consultation papers on competition and regulation in the legal profession.

And then along came Sir David Clementi, commissioned by the DCA to make recommendations on changes to how the legal profession is regulated. Gulliford became involved, actively campaigning, talking to Clementi and others and, of course, submitting a response to the consultation.

Broadly, Gulliford welcomes Clementi’s recommendations. “I think the legal industry needs it and I think most people in the legal industry recognise that it was needed,” he says. “He’s done a very thorough job – he’s certainly seen through the nonsense put out by the Bar Council.”

But what worries Gulliford now is the progress of the reforms through Parliament. Most of Clementi’s recommendations require legislation, and pushing them through in the face of opposition from the Tories and the Liberal Democrats may prove tricky for Labour, should the party be re-elected. So Gulliford is preparing to lobby the new government once the general election is over to ensure the success of the reforms.

Gulliford, however, cannot spend too much time worrying about Clementi. There are other issues concerning the RAC and its members, including the small claims limit. The Government is proposing to raise what counts as a ‘small claim’ from £1,000 to £5,000. Gulliford says the idea is “a nonsense from every angle”.

“It’ll be a big defence firm against my granny,” he argues, conjuring up the image of a little old lady facing the might of top 100 law firms without understanding properly the injury she is claiming for.

But the insurers will also suffer if the proposals go through, Gulliford adds, because at the moment claimant law firms sift out many spurious claims. “If you want a have-a-go culture, you take out the legal vetting process that exists,” he states.

As well as defending small claims, the RAC is launching a forum with its panel firms to provide reactive campaigning in the PI field. “We want to help to drive industry debate,” says Gulliford, explaining that the panel will produce regular reports on issues affecting the area.

Meanwhile, on a closer front, Gulliford is watching the acquisition of the RAC by Aviva. The transaction is being handled by the RAC’s separate corporate legal team, instructing Herbert Smith, and is not likely to affect RAC Legal Services or Gulliford’s role within it.

Which means that this softly-spoken campaigner will be able to continue his work lobbying for a better deal for his organisation and the thousands of members it serves.
Jonathan Gulliford
Head of legal services
RAC Legal Services

Organisation RAC Legal Services
Sector Motoring
Turnover £15m (£1.5bn for RAC plc)
Employees 200
Legal capability 45
Legal spend Negligible – external costs are paid for through successful cases
Head of legal services Jonathan Gulliford
Reporting to Managing director of legal services Eddie Ryan
Main law firms 24-strong panel, including Blake Lapthorn Linnell, Clarke Willmott, DMH Solicitors and Ward Hadaway