Moss & Co 25 this year.
I thought would take this opportunity to have look at the history of Moss & Co since Narinder and I established it in 1993. I believe it is a very special if not unique law firm. This account may be of interest to committed, dynamic young (or not so young) solicitors, or barristers looking for somewhere to nurture their skills in a practice were autonomy, principle and economic stability provide a rare haven in the unpleasant, unrewarding world of the legal aid criminal law factory.
Moss & Co was founded in 1993 just before the Conservative Government, alarmed at increasing expenditure and work of questionable quality, started to seek control of legal aid practice. Until then legal aid work was conducted by anyone who wanted to do it. Setting up a new firm was not complicated all we had to do was call the Legal Aid Board to obtain a legal aid account number which was given over the telephone. A one-page form provided our address and bank details and we were in business.
Origins at a radical firm in the 1970s
I had spent 15 years learning the practice and business of law at Bindman’s, one of the few “radical” firms then committed to legal aid work. It became clear to me that in the fields of criminal and civil litigation, business and practice could not be separated. A good lawyer just was one who was also financially astute, able to keep the practice solvent to better represent their, in the main, disadvantaged clients. This was not a commonly held view among the people I worked with most of whom were Oxbridge educated lawyers.
We worked in a creative, somewhat febrile atmosphere where money, if not a dirty word, was certainly not high on the list of priorities. The rights and wrong of the case were everything. That was possible because of the commitment of Geoffrey Bindman and Brian Raymond to human rights and because legal aid was available for just about anything excluding only advice on business matters. Moreover, legal aid was paid according to the amount of work done and that was broadly a matter for the solicitor’s judgement. The hourly rates although not high were in real terms at least three times what they are now. Substantial enhancements were available for grave cases (up to 200% in big frauds). We thrived under the ever-present cloud of a fat overdraft.
There was a cachet about criminal work in the 1970s and 1980s. A certain glamour which it has since lost. This was because before the Police and Criminal Evidence Act police stations and the officers conducting the cases were conviction factories. Conviction that is regardless of the evidence. Statements under caution were written despite protestations of innocence, verbal admissions were even more common; recorded in an officer’s notebook regardless of the words coming out of the suspects mouth. These travesties of justice were in the main protected by the judges of the day. Police officers’ evidence was almost always preferred to that of the defendant especially when to find otherwise was to mark the officer a liar. As a result defence work often involved novel and creative arguments like the concept of usability in respect of drugs possession, forensic break throughs such as Electrostatic Deposition Analysis (ESDA) which put paid to the forgery of supposedly contemporaneously recorded interviews under caution. We ran defences in murder cases supported by forensic reports concerning confabulation by drug addled victims. We advanced suggestibility defences using the top psychologists of the time. There were endless applications to exclude evidence from juries in “voir d ires”, a trial within a trial, to determine what the jury should and should not hear. If we could undo the verbal admissions, or purportedly signed confession, then our client’s chances were much improved.
The fun of it
Our development of non-disclosure arguments, especially of relevant unused material put paid to many a serious criminal prosecution and complex fraud case. Non-disclosure is not the recent issue it is made out to be. We ruthlessly exploited continuity of evidence arguments and on one occasion I instructed a now leading, and private work only QC, to ask no questions at all. The case concerned an assault in court by a Mr. X on a member of the High Court staff who had declined to accept his lengthy writ. The evidence seemed clear. The case was R v The Central London Justices Ex Parte X. X had been arrested outside the court, here was X before the court. The evidence was given,
“No questions your honour”, more evidence was given,“No questions your honour”, and so on. Until the perplexed judge in a sudden moment of realisation throwing down his pen, exclaimed:“I’ve got it! There is no evidence that Mr X before me is the Mr X in R v Central London Justices ex parte X, at the High Court”.
The case was dismissed.
In the beginning
The skills and attitudes I learnt there from the great and sadly missed Brian Raymond, from the barristers of the friendly and tiny anti-establishment Farrer’s Buildings (later to become 2 Garden Court and then the now hyper-establishment Garden Court Chambers) informed the way Narinder and my firm developed once we struck out on our own in 1993.
That’s it, just the two of us and some telephones, working out of one floor in a dilapidated, but elegant building in Hackney. It had previously been occupied by money lenders and our chance of rising from the dead was much improved by the fact that my office door for a while bore the name of Lionel Lazarus.
Everything at first seemed to conspire against us; an unexpected tragic death, road works obstructing the front door on the day we opened, three burglaries in as many months. On one occasion the burglar (probably one of our clients) took not only all the electronic equipment, but we found when going to make a restorative cuppa, the kettle, the tea and the coffee. Low moments.
The practice however was sound. Good lawyering attracted good quality work. We were not on the duty schemes. Narinder’s housing practice thrived on the skills she had learnt working at Bindman’s with Nick Madge, now I understand retired.
We were ambitious. The control of solicitors doing legal aid work through franchising and later a Specialist Quality Mark had just been introduced but contracting was far in the future. We wanted to get our firm into the mainstream of legal London, into WC1 or WC2 and so to develop the practice. We had no money worries. We had a “no overdraft, no charge on our home”, rule and so all expenses had to be met out of income or our own money.
The Strand office
1n 1994 we raided Bindman’s for staff Adam Cowell joined us as did Nahid Khaliq and later George Gross. We took offices at 388 Strand opposite the Savoy and pursued the businesses expansion and related entertainments single-mindedly. Suddenly we had partners a second floor at the Strand and then a third. We were on the Legal Services Commissions preferred supplier list, we took part in a contracting pilot. But we had lost something. That something was the ability to keep a close eye on the work we did whilst allowing our lawyers maximum freedom to pursue their preferred practices. We valued responsible autonomy above all else and still do.
There were forty people in the firm within 4 years of our setting up. Our fees were a respectable £2 million pounds a year. Labour had just won the 1997 election. I thought a new era of equality before the law; of the poor receiving their entitlements; of overall progressive advances in housing, health and social welfare were round the corner. No one could have been happier when Tony Blair strode up Downing Street to the sound of Fleetwood Mac.
Labour let down
I put on a new suit and travelled to the Strand in a glow of hopeful anticipation. My happiness was misplaced. Within a very short time Derry Irvine, who considered himself a reformer, set about attacking the very basis on which legal aid solicitors were paid. Under his regime fixed fees were introduced which later became the target for substantial cuts. I don’t want to blather on about levels of pay, for this is a positive account, just let me say that compared to the fees paid in the 1980s our notional hourly rate for much criminal work is about a third of what it was. Tony Blair seemed to have a vitriolic dislike of criminal law solicitors. It was a though he thought criminals did not deserve to be defended, perhaps that they like he (apropos the Iraq war) should answer only to God.
Down with the Sunday rag
So to the modern era. It started with fear and ended in adjustment, grudging acceptance, and in one sense a fresh start. The fear was that rising costs and falling hourly rates were a formula for failure. The Strand was ever more expensive, ever more difficult to make ends meet. The standards stayed up but took much supervising. There were office politics to deal with. Disputes between fee earners and the ever-increasing drum beat of the populist campaign run by press and politicians alike against “fat cat” legal aid lawyers.
This came to a head in the anti-austerity demonstrations of the early 1990s when we were asked to be observers and legal representatives. One of our solicitors, a redoubtable but peaceful anarchist, had designed a “Get out of Jail Free Card” with our name and telephone number which was handed out at the demonstration. The Mail on Sunday led with a front-page article featuring pictures of the demonstration and our card under the headline “Now the legal vultures descend”. Our phones rang off the hook on Monday morning with death threats, promises to torch our building and other dire threats. The Mail on Sunday has lovely readers. Such hate fuelled calls were uncommon before social media made threatening to kill someone an act of terrifying banality. We sued and won an apology printed in small type on an inside page. The SRA investigated but concluded we had done no wrong, it was the paper stirring up trouble. Geoffrey Bindman wrote a supportive piece in the Guardian.
I decided to re-organise, and we moved to cheaper but more beautiful offices overlooking the Thames at Blackfriars. There I aimed to pursue the Serious Fraud work at which we had become experts. We had been established for some years now, and we were a large firm on the Serious Fraud Panel. I found that when I discussed the prospects some among us were resistant to change, did not want to push the boundaries, and saw their work as just a living rather than a vocation, a project or even perhaps an obligation.
We remained as committed as ever to the work we do, the crime, the housing, the serious fraud cases and the actions against authorities, but we decided that we could not deliver the service we wanted as a large firm. I took a decision to contract and that started the era of the modern Moss & Co.
The endless assault
I am please that I did. For the last ten years has seen an unrelenting financial and political assault on legal aid lawyers. Time and again the Legal Services Commission and latterly. And more ardently the Ministry of Justice have attacked the bases of legal aid practices. By being smaller we have avoided the endless threats of redundancy, salary cuts and micromanagement of work patterns that have affected many of our competitors. This came to a farcical head in the competitive tendering round of 2015 when the government sought to reduce the number of legal aid criminal solicitors by two thirds. I spent three months preparing and won a contract. Unsurprisingly the disappointed solicitors led by Khaim Todner, who had received no contracts at all, challenged the assessment process which was shown to be amateur, flawed in execution and probably unlawful. The Legal Aid Agency capitulated, and our work was wasted.
We have ridden every assault and remained true to our founding principles of providing the highest quality representation whether on a legal aid, or increasingly on a private paying basis. We have taken 50 solicitors through the training process and Moss & Co trained solicitors work in many of the very best London firms. We will not capitulate to the sausage machine mentality that the current funding arrangements encourage. Our strong financial controls mean that our salaries are, we believe, above market rates.
We are still looking to develop our practice and welcome solicitors to join our firm provided they are independent minded, committed to their field and wish to work in an autonomous way within a structured, stable and happy professional environment. See our vacancies here.