Partners:Nicola Mackintosh and Ian Duncan (no managing partner)
Total number of partners: Two
Total number of staff: Three
Main practice areas: Employment, community care and health, conveyancing, wills and probate
Number of offices: One
Location: Southwark, London
Nothing riles Nicola Mackintosh, the community care specialist at South London firm Mackintosh Duncan, more than the kind of bureaucracy she believes smothers legal aid. The solicitor recently advised a client in the advanced stages of motor neurone disease who was paralysed from the neck down and spent every day sitting in bed. “She can’t move because she gets too tired,” Mackintosh explains. “Her life expectancy is pretty short.”
On Christmas Eve her client’s care package was mistakenly cut by a third. She was forced to provide for a carer out of her own small private pension and disability allowance.
Mackintosh asked her client to “make a mark” on the legal aid forms. “She had a go in good spirits and tried desperately hard to put a dot on the form,” the lawyer recalls. “I thought this was quite abusive and told her not to worry.” The lawyer eventually contacted the Legal Services Commission and was advised that she should take a foot or hand print from her client. “I’m not going to go into her house with a pot of paint and get her to do a Jackson Pollock,” she says.
Mackintosh cites the frustrating anecdote as an example of the problems of being a legal aid lawyer today. The firm was established in 1999 after the two partners left London criminal defence firm TV Edwards, where Ian Duncan was senior partner. The firm has stayed small deliberately because, as Mackintosh says, it provides “a much better service”. But she adds: “There’s also much more scope as a fee-earner and partner to have input into how the firm’s run and managed… It’s a much more empowering environment.”
Duncan mainly undertakes privately funded work and has a mixed practice, advising on employment matters, residential and commercial conveyancing, wills and probate, as well as partnership disputes. The privately funded work cross-subsidises the legal aid work. “It brings in the cash quickly, which is good because cashflow of legally aided work is always a problem,” she argues. The firm also took on solicitor Samantha Fothergill, who specialises in disability work, last October. Mackintosh’s clients include people with a wide range of disabilities.
The firm was established just before the introduction of legal aid contracting. Shortly afterwards it launched a judicial review of the new regime with the backing of the Law Society over the number of publicly funded cases Mackintosh could take on (she was limited to 35 new matter starts for the first 15 months). “That was effectively putting up artificial barriers in front of our clients, which were adversely going to affect people with disabilities, who were the least able to communicate and recognise that they had legal problems as opposed to social problems,” she says. The challenge failed when the High Court decided that the then Legal Aid Board was right to be concerned about “the uncontrolled and uncontrollable haemorrhaging of public money”. But it was widely lauded by legal aid lawyers.
Mackintosh believes that her concerns about the provision of publicly funded services have been borne out by her firm’s experiences over the last few years as well as reports of legal advice deserts springing up throughout the country. “What we predicted back then has come to light,” she says.