What Can Solicitors Learn from the Stokes Croft Tesco Protests?
BY Richard Powell, Solicitor, JWM
It would seem that we’re just not very good at complaining and standing up for ourselves in this country. As consumers, when faced with poor service or shoddy goods, we seem habitually reluctant to make a fuss.
Of course, there are plenty of people out there who do say what they think, and do stand up to be counted when they see an issue that needs to be addressed. However, the bigger the opponent, the harder it is for small pockets of resistance to have any impact.
If a large organisation is determined to impose its will, it can afford to play a waiting game. Eventually the few who do object will be outweighed by the majority, who can certainly see their point and would love to help out and sign a petition, honestly, but they don’t have time right now, and are sure that it will all work out for the best in the end. Apathy reigns.
Just such a problem has recently presented itself in the legal world.
Changes are on the way that will alter the means by which people access justice when they wish to make a personal injury claim as a result of another person’s negligence. Unfortunately, resistance to these changes lacks focus and is pitched against the power of the insurance industry. The reforms proposed by Lord Justice Jackson for instance, carry huge implications for claimants and those who represent them, but no-one is willing (or perhaps they lack the capability) to make themselves a convincing focal point for complaint, and for change.
It Doesn’t have to be Like This
However, it doesn’t have to be like this. News stories about the recent demonstrations in Stokes Croft, Bristol, over the opening of a new Tesco store, are a real jolt to the system.
The large supermarket chains generally get their way. They are often faced with objections to building new stores because of the impact on local, independent traders. However they have deep pockets and can be patient, waiting for objections to slowly fade away, or else use drawn out appeal processes, causing those who initially back objections to lose focus and motivation.
The supermarkets know that people will have no choice but to fall into line and accept their presence. Just like the insurance industry, they carry a great deal of power and use PR to deflect negative press.
The people of Stokes Croft see things differently. They did not want a Tesco in their suburb, but the strength and depth of feeling in the community went beyond anything that Tesco were used to. There was a perfect storm brewing, a particular kind of solidarity, and a desire to take positive action. Too high a proportion of local independent businesses faced a direct threat from Tesco’s presence, and that was capped by a certain political mood and an objection to large corporate entities. The local community valued having a choice as to where they could buy their goods. Despite the fact that the Tesco store actually opened, residents still engaged in direct action such as sit-ins.
This all came to a head when the police were accused of heavy handed tactics when dealing with their demonstrations, and unfortunately violence flared. It should be noted that this was only a small part of what was a long, sustained and peaceful campaign.
Now the area has become a national focal point and the Stokes Croft protesters are drawing support from other areas of the country. Those who have tried, and failed, to make changes in their own areas, are now drawn to Stokes Croft as a place where there is real momentum, and where everyone seems willing to “make a scene”. I am certainly not condoning the use of violence! I think that the protesters were set to achieve their aims in any event. It was already clear to Tesco that they were not welcome in that community. The key was having a sustained and consistent voice.
Lawyers Should Speak Out with One Voice against ‘Tesco’ Law
For the last few years the phrase “Tesco Law” has been used to herald the arrival of Alternative Business Structures, and the expectation that the supermarket giants (as a sweeping generalisation) would see an opportunity to create their own brands to handle such things as personal injury claims.
Set against this are the Jackson reforms. If implemented, big issues surrounding how a lawyer is to be paid for the work that they do will have to be dealt with. Everything points to a need to dumb down the service, and to adopt more of a production line mentality. It will be harder than ever to provide a true quality service to injured people seeking compensation.
A situation is emerging in the UK, in which a new provider of legal services could roll into a town near you, perhaps with an already familiar brand name, and gear up to bring injury claims – however, it would be done with the cheapest possible staff, and with very little understanding of the detail involved in these claims. It may well be an organisation that has the budget that enables them to work on a high volume/low margin business model. It could be operated through remote call centres. Many people would prefer to approach a solicitor operating in their local high street and have a choice. Just as Tesco coming to town can see the end of many local independent retailers, and the choice that they bring, they could have a similar effect on legal services.
It seems to me that lawyers and groups with an interest in the rights of injured claimants are presently being very British about things, and not making enough of a noise about what is going on. Objections have been (half-heartedly) raised by a few people, but without a real focal point. Various professional organisations should be pooling resources and speaking with one voice to make sure the public hear what could happen when “Tesco” (or whoever else it might be) comes to town.
As a profession we have to create that perfect storm, preferably without need for an actual riot!
Richard Powell is joint head of the Personal Injury Claims department of JMW Solicitors, specialising in high value claims. He also focuses on staff and business development for the whole department, tailoring claims services for clients and monitoring overall standards to ensure consistency and quality.
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