Guest Law Review: What Can Solicitors Learn from the Stokes Croft Tesco Protests?

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 JMW Solicitors Personal Injury Claims department , 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.

7 thoughts on “Guest Law Review: What Can Solicitors Learn from the Stokes Croft Tesco Protests?

  1. The Tesco in Stokes Croft is perhaps an ironic target for a backlash. It’s a Metro or Express format with a small-scale convenience offer in what appears to be a local neighbourhood. Attacking this store is like blaming Poland for the Iraq War. The real problem is out-of-centre and large-scale retailing, driven by lower greenfield development costs and a quest for a dominant market share (particularly Tesco, so the protesters aren’t quite so misguided). This problem is permitted by a loophole in the planning system, called the ‘sequential test’, which allows developers to set up competing sites in sequentially-preferred town centres as coconuts for knocking down, leading inexorably to the developers’ own site, reinforced by complex technical arguments as to a quantitative economic ‘need’ for new floorspace. Local planning authorities can be easy targets, given the cost of defending a planning decision at appeal (although hearings can dispense with QCs!) but this is not the only problem…. in a few cases, developers have sought judicial review of other competing planning consents, wasting time and money (they usually fail). National planning policy needs to be revisited, with a more robust presumption against large scale out of centre development…for large superstores (which increasingly have a non-food offer) but also for retail parks…the combined effect is to suck the life out of town centres. Greater power needs to be restored to locally-accountable planning authorities and clawed back from the system. It is no wonder that local communities feel marginalised!

  2. With respect to Iain the major supermarkets have gone as far as they can with large superstores and are now mopping up the last of the independents with small scale stores. We are in danger of losing the last independent wholesaler in my area, giving independents and restaurants nowhere but the supermarkets anywhere to buy, and the public no choice.
    Government has built a system of asking for benefits from large businesses, which could be called bribery if not sanctioned by the law, into the planning system. The combination of the cost of defending the planning decisions and supermarket tactics of waiting out the protests mean add to this problem.
    I’m sure that there are tasks that lawyers routinely perform which could be packed like a tin of beans, however I’d like to believe I can’t be the only person who would like to be sure that the person who is dealing with my problem is well versed in its complexity and is giving me the best advice available.
    When the supermarkets have taken over the legal system too, who will be left to protect the rest of us. They already more revenue than many small countries and enormous political clout.

  3. Isn’t the simpler solution to the “Tesco problem” just to not shop there and use the ‘local’ alternatives? As far as I know the alternative local shops haven’t been evicted as part of the process of opening the Tesco Metro/Express.

    To continue the analogy, if people want a pre-pack litigation document (insert your name here, the other party’s name here, your club card number here) with their value turkey twizzlers, then I’m sure the cash rich supermarkets will oblige. As long as the law is commoditised then they have a brutally effective business model (which is not quite the same as an effective legal or justice model).

    An independent (lawyer, store, artist, etc) will never be able to compete on price, however, a generation has grown up in a version of the ‘free market’ model where price is the only measure. Changing that outlook is a bigger challenge than the Jackson Review.

  4. The concept of “Tesco Law” is one that the legal profession will rue if action is taken later rather than sooner. It is directly comparable to the situation faced by the optical profession post 1988 when K.Clarke opened up the “market”. Very soon Specsavers using the business model of “joint venture” and exploiting a perfect business plan adapted to the circumstances expanded in numbers of branches like two fruitflies in a jar. The company offered high salaries in the early days and were employing at a time of a rising surplus of new graduates. Today the company has 33% by volume of the market in the U.K. and optical salaries [not partners` incomes] are well below in real terms those of twenty years ago. That success prompted Tesco and Asda and others to open their own optical departments which are increasingly successful with higher margins than is common in supermarket environment. The result is the increasingly reducing share of the market for independants. Any high street illustrates this. Lawyers will not be immune from a marketting based operation. Quite frankly just as in the optical profession some small practices deserve to go to the wall but do readers here judge their optical requirements to be better or worse served with the Specsavers company on almost every high street of every town in the country? What logic would argue that what in principle is good for eyecare requirements is not good for legal requirements?

  5. I’m not sure solicitors can learn a lot from the Stokes Croft protests, I’m afraid, other than how difficult it is to take on Big Food (or Big Finance for that matter) even with an unusually focussed protest born out of a particular local environment and issues.

    Despite that unity of purpose in Stokes Croft, the store has reopened and may well stay open, although there is an application due to be heard later this month on whether a judicial review can be brought – although that only relates to a planning permission for the exterior, not the original planning permission for retail, which was granted to someone else before Tesco were even involved (I did a blogpost on this on 25 May if you are interested in more background on this).

    As to the wider issue, perhaps the writing was on the wall some 20 years ago when solicitors (especially in the larger firms) became fixated on rebranding themselves as a “service industry” rather than a profession. With that and now the relaxation of the rules, it’s no surprise that in a free market the big retail and financial behemouths will muscle in.

    Small firms will struggle to compete with the big spending power of those giants. To survive, we must try to differentiate ourselves on quality and a personal service – rather like independent shops (and opticians, to use the example above – I prefer my local optician because I get a friendlier and I believe better service there).

    It wont be easy, but it stands more chance of working for some than angry protest – it’s too late for that.

  6. This is a first draft of a press release I am sending out soon- sorry for the shameful plugs to my website…. Any feedback will be gratefully received..

    An Antidote to “Tesco Law” and “Solicitors from Hell”?

    With the announcement that the so-called Tesco Law goes into effect later this year, many solicitor firms are worried how they will fit into the changing legal sector. The new law will effectively deregulate the legal sector as a whole. It will lend to new avenues for raising money by using anything from bringing on board non-legal partners to taking advantage of the stock market.

    Some fear the quality of legal services will be pushed aside in new “sell them cheap, pack them in” legal firms where quality and individual personal care, one of the cornerstones of good legal practice, will go by the wayside in pursuit of shareholder profits. This leaves smaller law firms at a crossroads: either grow by adding partners, or scramble to keep their existing clients and bring aboard new ones.

    http://www.solicitor.info, an independent legal website, is ahead of the curve and has taken measures to provide existing law firms with a way to ensure quality services are the first thing a potential client is introduced to. “With so many changes in the sector as a whole, there’s going to be a lot of shuffling and redefining of strategies”, says the site’s founder, David Sprake. “Our goal is to help those firms help themselves in an affordable and meaningful way”.

    Solicitor.info allows solicitors’ clients to rate services they have received. Solicitors who receive the best ratings and most ratings are positioned at the top of the website listings – not those who pay the most in advertising. “Many solicitors are adding themselves voluntarily and then encouraging their clients to leave feedback” says Sprake. “A solicitor will find many new clients this way; it’s a win-win situation and it’s free!”

    Janet Davies of Booth, Ince and Knowles Solicitors, a law practice in Manchester, is certainly benefiting from solicitor.info, “We love the concept of solicitor.info and tell all our clients to leave feedback of our service there; people looking for legal help read the feedback on solicitor.info and instruct us, we have seen lots of work come through because of it.” Make no mistake solicitor.info is not like the infamous Solicitors from Hell website. Visitors to the site are looking for solicitor firms that will give them a good, professional service in a timely and affordable manner.
    Solicitor.info also goes some way to addressing problems associated with defamatory ratings. A solicitor is automatically emailed every time they receive a review, and they can submit a live response immediately. If the review is defamatory, the solicitor can request it to be removed, and this will be done “expeditiously” say’s the site owner. If a solicitor wishes, they can be removed from site altogether, all without charge or obligation.
    In the end, it comes down to one question as far as solicitors are concerned, how do I market my quality service? Solicitor.info certainly is one avenue to do this.

  7. Pingback: The future of legal services? | Probaters Blog

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