In a noteworthy innovation, a firm specialising in criminal law opened last month with a not-for-profit ethos. Despite the misgivings of some in the criminal law world (@CrimeLineLaw tweeted: ‘A “not for profit” criminal firm. The irony meter just blew a fuse’), Commons
has all the ingredients for success, including a criminal legal aid contract and, most importantly, lawyers who are all experienced practitioners with a track record of success at their previous firms.
Rhona Friedman is one of the three solicitors behind the new co-operative (the others being well-known criminal law specialists Sashy Nathan and Ben Stuttard). She previously worked for Bindmans and was one of the leading lights in the Justice Alliance, the campaign group that helped successfully fight the government’s plans for criminal legal aid tenders.
Instead of the more conventional partnership arrangement, Commons is a community interest company (CIC) and has ‘a flat pay structure’, ie, all of the members/workers are paid the same. ‘The co-operative is about trying to rethink how law firms work in the 21st century,’ explained Friedman. She feels that the conventional law firm structure is too restrictive, and the new venture is ‘about harnessing people’s talent whatever stage of their careers they are at chronologically’.
Friedman told Legal Action that Commons provides the same services as any other criminal defence firm, from representing clients in police stations to the higher courts. Like conventional solicitors’ practices, it is regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
As well as providing a high-quality service to legal aid and private clients, Friedman said Commons wants ‘to be at the forefront of technological innovation and developing new ways of thinking about the justice system’. The firm has already received grants for projects including outreach work at a local advice centre. Friedman believes the CIC legal structure gives charitable trusts and other funders the assurance that there is a clear ‘demarcation between projects and the legal work of the firm’.
Commons is not the first legal services CIC; some Law Centres have opted to establish fee-charging services by forming them. Legal Action understands, though, that it is the first to specialise in criminal law.