• Sundeep Bhatia

15 October 2012-Reflections on 20 years as a Solicitor

It was 20 years ago today…..” as Sir Paul McCartney once sang. On 15 October 1992 I was admitted to the role as a solicitor of the Law Society of England and Wales. I still swell with pride when I remember the day. It was the culmination, as it is with all the solicitors, of many years of study. I recall the pride of my dearly departed mother and my father as I accepted my certificate from the then President of the Law Society. I remember being dazzled by the History and splendour of The Law Society headquarters at 113 Chancery Lane. I could never imagine that,18 years later, I would be admitted as a Member of the governing body of The Law Society of England and Wales (The Law Society Council). My route to qualification was not a smooth one. I, like many other law students, had difficulty in finding articles.

Moreover I qualified during another economic recession. The firm I completed my articles with was not in a position to take me on as a solicitor.

I therefore spent six months unemployed whilst I frantically looked for a position as a solicitor.

Eventually I reentered the job market by means of seizing on an opportunity to do repossession work for an Essex based firm of solicitors.

The position was advertised as being for a trainee solicitor. However I managed to obtain it by stating that I was prepared to do the job at an articled clerks rate of pay whilst being a qualified solicitor. The position was a fixed one of six months but was extended for another six months.

Towards the end of that time I successfully applied for a position that I saw advertised in the Law Society Gazette. That was for a general practice in Harrow and Wealdstone. The job was advertised as being a mixed litigation roll involving both criminal and civil litigation. However, when it came to it, I ended up doing just Legally Aided criminal litigation work. Fortunately I greatly enjoy doing criminal Legal Aid work. I got off to a shaky start but eventually found my feet.

I remember, with great affection, my early appearances at Harrow magistrates court ( which unfortunately closed in 2011).

There I met the finest Legal clerk I have ever met. His name is Noel Tierney and I recently saw him when I appeared a few weeks ago ,at Brent magistrates court. When I first appeared in his court I had still to learn my craft. I was unsure as to the answer to a particular question.

Mr Tierney put me right without embarrassing me. He thus said “Do you mean…..” and gave the correct answer.

I adopted his answer and therefore humiliation was avoided. I imagine that he has helped out generations of solicitors appearing in his Magistrate’s Court both before and after my fledgeling appearance.

Fortunately I became a better criminal lawyer. I was appointed as a Duty Solicitor to local Police stations and became a court duty solicitor.

I became adept at attending police stations in the dead of night whilst my principal slept soundly in his bed.

I learned my craft in an atmosphere of sink or swim and, for that reason, it was the best training possible.

I spent five years with that firm in Harrow and Wealdstone. Prior to my departure in 1999 I rose to become head of the department.

I was, to a large extent, responsible for that obtaining its criminal franchise .

At that point my dear wife, Namita, and those close to me, convinced me that I could do better by means of establishing my own criminal Legal Aid firm.

Therefore, in May 1999, I left the safe waters of the Harrow and Wealdstone firm and established my own criminal law firm which was called Brent law practice.

I established it in Neasden in the London borough of Brent because, by means of doing so, I could be on nine Duty Solicitor schemes. I started off in a service office in Neasden with my wife as my secretary and PR.

The firm did well. Soon I was taking on other members of staff. By 2001 we came to the point whereby it was cheaper to take a lease on external premises rather than taking on extra rooms within the service offices.

Therefore, in 2001, the firm moved to 305 to 307 Neasden Lane where it would remain for a further 5 1/2 years overlooking the North circular Road.

The firm went from strength to strength. We took on a solicitor who I consider to be one of the finest criminal lawyers I have ever worked with.

His name is Mark Fidler and he is now a partner at Blavo and Co solicitors.

Mark was totally dedicated to his cause. He went above and beyond the call of duty.

He would take calls from clients all hours of the night and day. They loved him and I made a good friend who was totally dedicated to the same cause that I was. By means of his prior experience Brent Law Practice became a member of the VHCC (very high cost cases )panel of the legal services commission. In 2005 I became politically active when the Legal Services Commission announced its first attempt to bring in Price Competitive Tendering.

I realised the effect this would have on the provision of high quality dedicated legal assistance. I also realised the effect it would have on many Black Minority Ethnic Law firms and the communities that they served.

It was at this point that I reacquainted myself with the Society of Asian lawyers and became involved in vigourous campaigning face-to-face with politicians, members of the Law Society and other representative organisations such as the London criminal courts Solicitors Association And the Middlesex Law Society. I was a committee member of all three organisations. My campaigning work became even more vigorous in 2006 when Lord Carter announced his review of the criminal legal aid system. I went so far as to meet him for tea at the House of Lords and debated against him in the library of the Law Society headquarters at Chancery Lane.

I rose to become vice chair of the Society of Asian lawyers in 2006 and was its chairman between 2008 to 2010. In 2009 I received an invite to Buckingham Palace in that capacity and was presented to the Queen. In 2010 I hosted the Law Minister of India and also attended a reception for him at The Houses of Parliament.

My campaigning work made me realise that to continue as a small criminal defence firm was going to be ever more difficult. Fixed fees had been bought in and there was only one direction that those fees would go and that was downwards.

I therefore had to decide whether I wanted to carry on with my own criminal defence firm in circumstances where things would inevitably become worse rather than better.

Therefore, in at the end of 2006, I gave up Brent Law Practice.There were also personal reasons behind that decision. From 1999 to the end of 2006 Brent Law Practice had been the child of my wife , as practice manager, and myself.

Like any child it demanded all our attention and resources. We therefore made a decision that we wanted a more balanced life. Therefore from the beginning of 2007 I practised as Beaumonde Law Practice devoting myself to the Employment Law work I had started to practise under the banner of Brent Law Practice.

I also formed working attachments with criminal law firms and therefore kept my criminal expertise alive.

In 2004 I obtained my criminal Higher Rights of audience and still practice those rights.

I am also an accredited mediator and qualified in 2005.

The legal world has changed a lot since I qualified as a solicitor in 1992. When I qualified the Legal Aid was adequately funded and one could make a reasonable living from it.

However ,In my opinion ,the stage has now been reached where it is financially impossible to conduct criminal legal aid work at a sustainable level.

Things will inevitably get worse in 2013 when the government tries once again to reduce reintroduce plans for competitive tendering. .

.When I started work in 1992 there was a better rapport between the Bar Council and the Law Society.

In 2012 I see the vicious squabbling and outspoken words used by the Bar Council in relation to QASA and Solicitor advocates. I see the Bar Council describing solicitors as unnecessary intermediaries.

A spirit of camaraderie between criminal defence firms has given way to vicious cutthroat competition.

The work I do at the Employment tribunal is threatened by the introduction of fixed fees and other dubious reforms designed to reduce the number of claims.

Yet despite all this I still enjoy the work. I am still immensely proud to state that I am a Solicitor.

I enjoy giving my time, on a voluntary basis, to my profession by my work on the Law Society council.

I help the Law society to formulate policy on Equality and Diversity and Employment Law matters by my work on those committees . I also play a part in shaping Regulation of the profession via my membership of the Regulatory Affairs Board of the Law Society and the External Implementation Group of the Solicitors Regulation Authority..

I have dealt with fascinating criminal law cases that are far more interesting than any work of fiction I have read.

I love the law. I love being a solicitor. However the most memorable part of today is not the fact that I have been a solicitor for 20 years but the fact that my beloved twins turn five! They keep me grounded as does my wonderful wife Namita.

I dedicate this blog to the three of them!

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Sundeep Bhatia Sole Principal (SRA 155523) Beaumonde Law Practice Evans House 107 Marsh Road Pinner Middlesex HA5 5PA Tel 0208681614 07803727534 Authorised and Regulated by The Solicitors Regulation Authority(SRA No 462672)

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