Stobart Barristers – the direct access service run by the famous logistics company – has given a strong indication that it will bid for the new criminal legal aid contracts the government is set to offer under price competitive tendering.
While not confirming it would be bidding, Trevor Howarth, group legal director at the Stobart Group and founder of Stobart Barristers, told Legal Futures that his business is “in line with what the government is thinking”.
He said the current model – with large numbers of firms doing identical work while fees are falling – was “unsustainable”. Even if they start to merge, that will not wipe out “the legacy of debt” most carry. He described criminal law practices as “very wounded animals ready to die”.
The Stobart model, which connects consumers with barristers so that they do not have to pay for the overheads associated with law firms, would allow criminal legal aid work to be done profitably at the proposed rates, Mr Howarth indicated.
The Legal Aid Agency would contract with Stobart Barristers to find the right barrister on a case-by-case basis, he added. Though he acknowledged that some overheads would be introduced at his end, these would be “switched on as and when we need them”, rather than being there permanently.
Mr Howarth also said he could extend his service to solicitor-advocates who left law firms and operated as self-employed advocates.
The possibility of non-legal organisations like the Stobart Group entering criminal legal aid has been used by the likes of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) as an example of the dangers of the government’s plans. Mr Howarth said: ” The chairman of the CBA criticises our model but he hasn’t seen the number of criminal barristers, including silks, joining us. He is out of step with his members.”
Mr Howarth has a background in criminal law work, dating back to preparing cases for the pre-Crown Prosecution Service Prosecuting Solicitors’ Office and working for several law firms, including as practice manager for the firm of celebrity solicitor Nick Freeman.
Mr Howarth said the “phenomenal uptake of Stobart Barristers is purely because of the brand” – since setting up nearly a year ago, it has worked for PLCs and local authorities as well as consumers.