Thursday, 19 April 2012

The apprentice

Ask any business owner what they expect to get for £2.60 an hour.

If they told you “an intelligent and ambitious youngster who has completed four of six years training including a university degree and a year of vocational study” would that surprise you?

Of course it would. It’s a ridiculous proposition. 

For three decades trainee solicitors emerging into the real world for their final two years ‘on the job’ before joining the profession have been protected from exploitation by minimum salary regulations. Outside London the current rate is £16,650 or – based on a 40 hour week – a little over £8 an hour.

The basic minimum wage is about 75% of that but you don’t need a degree and more to earn it (not yet anyway).

Let’s just observe at this point that these, in the main young, people will have spent four (further) years after sixth form studies earning nothing. In fact they will have stacked up on average around £25,000 of debt by the time they have finished. This figure will double for those who are able to reach the same position three or four years from now.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (“SRA”) is presently considering the abolition of the minimum salary for trainee solicitors. In the course of the consultation process attention has been drawn to the fact that trainees during the first of their two years would be entitled to a minimum of only £2.60 an hour being the rate allowed for an apprentice.

The SRA justifies its review by saying that the minimum salary does not promote the objectives of the Legal Services Act 2007. If it provides incentive and optimism for determined and talented young people, then that must be right.

Richard Moorhead, Professor of Law at Cardiff University, has noted “a strong correlation between low pay and very poor training” in his research. Informed opinion of that calibre is no less valuable where, in my humble view, it’s unsurprising.

Peanuts and monkeys. It’s a growing problem for the legal profession, for the industry and ultimately for justice and society.

Short term it’s astonishing that the organization (I use the term very loosely indeed) charged with regulating us all has to admit that this issue only emerges after it floated the proposal:

“Since publication of its consultation document on its role in setting the minimum salary for trainees, the SRA has been continuing with its due diligence activities. This has included a detailed examination of the legal framework which would apply if the current minimum salary requirements were removed. 

Advice has been received that trainees would be classed as apprentices within the terms of the National Minimum Wage Regulations. The Regulations would apply a rate of £2.60 per hour for apprentices in their first year”

In other words, until somebody else said something it hadn’t occurred to them?

Maybe there’s a strong argument that even £2.60 an hour is over the odds in some cases. No doubt that will appeal to Clarke, Bojangley and chums.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

April showers

One of my staff arrived at the office grumbling humorously about the weather.

In answer to my protest that the sun was shining brightly, her justification was the unpredictability of it all.

As I then explained, we’re in that traditional season of perfect propagation weather - alternating sunshine and rain.

What I find remarkable is that it’s in the right place this year. 

In recent past years it has been all over the place - two months early, two months late.  I’m all for innovation but some things in life that we have to plan ahead depend on being able to take a reasonably good stab at knowing what the weather will be like.

So, is it all back to “normal”?  If so, why?

I suggested this morning that perhaps it’s because almost everything in the world is now being manufactured on the other side of the planet.  The upside of us having nothing to do here is that we are getting our weather straightened out again.

OK, I realize globalization isn’t quite that simple.  Still, I‘m looking forward to the time that my best friend comes scuttling back from the Far East with the explanation that the climate here is so much better...

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The (not so) Fantastic Mr Fox

Chat on the radio early this morning was about increasing numbers and audacity of foxes in urban areas.

One presenter was recalling the times when occasionally you would see one and it would run off when spotted. This morning he was about to get into his taxi and the fox is standing almost next to him.  Direct eye contact produces only a look that says, “yeah...and ?”

People have been talking about these perceived shifts for years and not just in relation to an animal most notably associated with Britain.  I have always particularly enjoyed the footage of bears falling into and knocking over bins in the northern States and Canada.....mind you, they were not my bins.

Anyway, I don’t need any of that.  I have enough trouble with the indigenous wildlife in Somerset.

I'm reasonably confident that the badgers have been excluded but - as my badly punned tweets about Herb N. Fox indicate – other problems continue.

One of the remarkable things is that I can be reasonably sure what is forever digging holes in my lawn.  I've not only seen them wandering around on my patio at 4:00 in the morning, I've almost tripped over the blessed animals outside my front gate mid-evening in broad daylight.

It’s true that I’m lucky enough to live right on the edge of a rural town but, at the risk of seeming hackneyed, it never used to be like this.

Elsewhere in the world it’s often said that these unwelcome encroachments are largely a product of global warming and other deleterious human impact on the environment.   Ironically, it’s probably also helped by the compensating reaction of many - that of greater empathy with and support for our wildlife.

Personally, I have always been an animal lover but I must confess that my goodwill towards foxes is about to run out.  As for seagulls,  well they fell off the Christmas list two or three years ago.

It made me wonder this morning, of course, how much of this will and can reasonably be attributed to eight years in force of the Hunting Act. Prior to 2004 one estimate put the number of foxes killed by registered hunts each year at between 21,000 and 25,000, which in turn was said to be about 5% of overall fox mortality per annum.

There was also evidence to indicate substantial regional variation with hunting said to account for as many as 50% of mortalities in Wales - for reasons unknown.

A couple of years ago we were plagued (ok – slight over-statement) by a couple of rats for a few weeks.  A fox cub was witnessed “arresting” one of them.

This delighted my daughter (as do my references now to “playing tag with Basil around the garden”).  She was also reasonably pleased when the survivor seemingly died of loneliness, though ironically had come to rest under the rabbit shed.

But they are gone and the foxes’ work is done. I wish they’d now clear off back to the comparative safety of the nearby countryside - or even Wales. I hear they're still a few short..

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Off the hook

We have a very simple (or so we think) task to perform.

Children of deceased parent own the freehold of a very ordinary residential property subject to the life tenancy of parent’s surviving spouse. It’s all beautifully documented with a declaration of trust and the Land Register in neat order.

Life tenant has the property insured and we can note our client’s interest as freeholders on the policy. It’s all agreed in principle.  Life tenant has spoken to insurers and has a named contact who just wants the detail from us.

Can we get anybody to give us an e-mail address??  We telephone to try.  Named contact is not there this week.  Colleague will do no more than leave a message for that contact to call back.

So, now the prospect of numerous calls backwards and forwards and nothing getting done.  Why do insurers and banks insist so often that this is the only way they will operate?

Is it because they can ignore the telephone, or hide behind layers of robotic messages that drain the spirit of even the most avid enquirer?

Is it because it’s not possible by telephone, as it is with e-mail, to create a portfolio of all the failed attempts to connect and perhaps produce that at a later stage to an ombudsman or judge?

Is it because they have a minority of people capable of composing basic written communications?

Or is it more sinister than that – is it that they’re happy to let people loose on the telephone where the inaccuracy or inadequacy of what was said is far less likely to be recorded? 

It’s not just lack of evidence that we have to be concerned with in a society that seems to care less and less about the truth.

How many of these institutions record conversations “for training purposes” with the result that they have a record of what was said but the caller doesn’t?

I defended a client against the aggressive claims of an electricity supplier a couple of years ago where, because it was a business contract, they were able in principle to rely on a verbal contract recorded over the telephone.  We would not accept what they insisted repeatedly would have been agreed and we demanded production of the transcript.

Eventually, it came and with it the observation that..... oh – there had been a mistake and their operator had in fact agreed a much lower rate.  We were right.

One wonders in these situations how many times that unfavourable recording would be lost or erased in circumstances where it was a customer or client on the attack rather than trying to fend off a claim.

The great virtue of telephone communication used to be that it was quick and easy by comparison with every other medium. Well, e-mail is now generally quicker, easier and safer.

It’s there when you’re ready to read it – not just right now. It says what it says and doesn’t (generally) change.  It transports other documents in a variety of formats, or through links to other web locations.

There doesn’t seem to be any acceptable or legitimate reason for organisations – notably banks and insurers – refusing to recognise these truths.