Interview with the New President

PUBLISHED November 16, 2012

Akhtar Ahmad is the new president of the LCCSA.

Q: How did you come to be a London lawyer?

A: My family are originally from Pakistan. My father came to London in the sixties, to study law. He was called to the Bar in 1970, the year that I was born, and tried to make his way as a barrister in London; but he faced the difficulties of coming from "the wrong side of the tracks" and he did various other jobs in order to get by.

I grew up in Stoke Newington and went to the notorious Hackney Downs School, at one time reported in the press to be the worst school in Britain. There were lads there who were far more talented and brighter than I was who unfortunately didn't get very far educationally; and the reason I did was because I had my parents' influence at home ? and, of course, some helpful and inspiring teachers.

I did my A levels at Tottenham college and then gained a Law degree from London University. A friend kick-started my career by recommending an opportunity to work for a high street firm in Slough. I went in as a paralegal, travelling to Slough from London every day. It started as a summer job but quickly turned into a permanent position. I managed to create my own little client base in Slough and, after a few years, having earned some money, I was able to go to the College of Law at Guildford to do the LPC, with a training contract waiting for me at the Slough firm. I qualified there and stayed until 2000, when I joined a large regional firm in Uxbridge.

Q: Tell me about your current firm, ABV

A: In January 2006, Aneeta Borwick, Deepak Vij, Robert Borwick and I founded ABV Solicitors. We are still together and over that time the firm has grown from just the four of us to around 25.

We specialise purely in criminal law and associated areas. The firm has its roots within general crime but we are also regularly instructed in serious criminal work.

As partners, our roles overlap but we also have specific responsibilities within the practice. I am responsible for compliance, complaints, designing and implementing office systems, supervision and website. I maintain a caseload and still attend court and police stations, as do my partners.

We are based in west London and cover the local courts and police stations - although, increasingly, some of the work is nationwide.

When we started, I spent a lot of time in the youth court. The firm plays its part in our local community - we feel we have to - contributing to community events to try and discourage young people from getting involved in gang activity.

Q: What is the history of your involvement with the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association? Why did you take the presidential job on?

A: I've been a member since 2000 and I joined the committee five years ago. Throughout the noughties, there were a number of campaigns and I felt that there was a degree of unity in the LCCSA and that things could be achieved through that. Right from the start, I've attended campaign meetings and the annual dinner has always been a highlight.

During my time on the committee, I've been training officer (when I arranged a number of events, including the Easter conferences) and I helped Sandra with the re-branding of the association. I also helped Jim redevelop the website.

Having been involved with the full gamut of the association's activities over the last few years, I felt that I was able to take on the role of president. I regard it as a massive honour. Obviously, I've questioned whether I'm the right person to do it but, given the excellent committee which we have, including the continued involvement of past presidents Jim Meyer, Paul Harris, Ray Shaw and Malcolm Duxbury, I hope that my period as president will be a productive one.

Q: How long will the LCCSA survive? Is it time to wave goodbye to an expensive European conference and a posh dinner?

A: I've no doubt the LCCSA will survive as long as there are criminal law lawyers in private practice, despite the undoubted difficulties that many law firms are experiencing in London. This year, the association will celebrate its 65th birthday and it is certainly not ready for retirement. It provides a forum for members and firms to air their grievances, raise their concerns and hopefully provide a united front to the other players in the system. The committee consists of a good cross-section of practitioners in London, with large, small and new firms represented, practising all areas of criminal law - as well as the CPS. It's an excellent forum to discuss the issues of the day and provide responses which reflect the views of the members.

I've got a soft spot for both the Euro conference and the dinner which are not expensive, comparatively speaking. The conference is an opportunity to gain five CPD points, learn about legal systems abroad, meet colleagues from different firms and discuss industry issues away from the stress of our practices, all for a very reasonable price.

The dinner is the focal point of the LCCSA's year. It inspired me when I was younger, to have the chance to speak to the leading lights in our profession. This year, I thought it was great that district judges were invited as our guests. It's an opportunity for young lawyers to meet judges out of a court setting, demystifying the whole process.

Sandra does an excellent job to ensure these events are always a success.

Q: Do you have any particular aim for the Association to achieve during your presidential year?

A: We will be improving the membership package so that there will be a way to gain 16 CPD points included in the annual membership fee. This will provide real benefit for our members, many of whom are feeling the effects of cuts to fees. Jim Meyer, Jonathan Black and Avtar Bhatoa have worked very hard on this project which makes good use of technology to provide webinars. Many organisations are now providing training through this medium and, given our record of providing quality training over the years, it seems a natural progression to provide this for our members.

The membership fee - which also includes the police station ID card which is now a requirement at many police stations - presents excellent value and I hope will encourage others to join.

The battle on best value tendering (BVT) has currently been put back to 2014. With that ahead of us, we want to consolidate our position and get the right people involved now for the challenges that lie ahead. In the meantime, committee members will continue to work hard, volunteering their valuable time to respond to government and represent members' interests. Flexible courts, the paperless future and QASA are just some of the many issues which we are focused on at the moment.

It is the 65th year of the LCCSA and there will be events to celebrate this milestone. And I hope we will be able to provide opportunities for members to engage with the judiciary and policy makers alike.

Q: What can be done about the media's lamentably inaccurate view of legal aid lawyers?

A: Press spin is often outrageous, for example, the way that they reported lawyers' concerns about the reduction of the legal aid mileage rate to 25p a mile. To suggest that criminal lawyers are moaning about using public transport is false and misleading. Fitting into the working day attendance at a court, a police station and a prison, is just simply not practical on public transport in many cases. And the way in which the media reported the attempt at flexible courts, suggesting that criminal lawyers won't work the weekends like other people, is nonsense. Criminal defence lawyers are used to working outside normal hours. Our concern is that we will spend a large amount of money on piloting a scheme which has little merit and that money could be better utilised. I think that there are going to be more stories
of this kind in the lead-up to BVT.

The police are on the front foot in relation to a media campaign. Despite the Leveson inquiry, despite Hillsborough, the police still seem to have the media on their side. Of course it's going to be difficult but we need to be able to present the reality from the criminal practitioner's point of view. We need to be more vocal in putting the press straight.

Q: Is the relationship between the LCCSA and the Bar at an all-time low?

A: Clearly there have been some real concerns raised about comments which have been made, which suggest that the chasm between the solicitors' profession and the Bar is widening; but, as Jim Sturman put it at the annual dinner, to try and score points off each other is to cut our own throats. The Criminal Bar Association has a new chair, Michael Turner QC, and I hope that we'll see a change in rhetoric. The LCCSA's and CBA's differing views on the issue of plea-only advocates, for instance, suggests that there is considerable distance to be closed. Greater dialogue may help temper some of the unhelpful rhetoric and enable us to focus on the serious challenges which our respective branches of the profession must overcome.

Q: What do members have to fear from QASA?

A: One of our concerns is that advocates should have the ability to move between categories; but the fall in the number of trials and the number of Recorders conducting trials reduces the opportunity to do the requisite work in order to move to the next grade. This leads us to believe that judicial evaluations will hamper the process. I think we're on our fourth round of consultations now and I acknowledge that some of our concerns have been taken on board so, for instance, in the youth court, it is now understood that many solicitors who specialise in this work would not be able to do so if it was marked as "category 2".

Q: What does the government's enthusiasm for flexible courts teach us about their attitude towards the courts?

A: That they are not entirely in touch with the practicalities on the ground. Following the riots, the criminal justice system united in order to ensure that the system was able to cope with the influx of defendants. The ability to manage so many defendants was a success story. (Incidentally, there has been a failure to recognise the important role that defence lawyers played in that success.) There were a lot of difficulties that had to be overcome and many concerns about injustices occurring. It was speedy justice in an extreme form: crucial CCTV evidence wasn't being served; people were being required to enter pleas without seeing all of the relevant evidence; people were being remanded into custody who ordinarily would get bail; and very harsh sentences were being imposed. But, of course, that was as a result of the exceptional circumstances that this country faced, in particular London. But to use that exceptional set of events as a blueprint going forward will be a costly error and, from the outset, we have reminded those who are promoting the idea that we've been here before with the night courts experiments and it proved too expensive. Better use should be made of the time currently available to courts in the working week.

Q: Is the government's long-term strategy the destruction of legal aid as we know it?

A: I feel that the experience with the public defender scheme and its costs implications shows that the current system for dispensing legal aid for criminal work is overall the best way of achieving an efficient and just system in an adversarial context. One of the advantages of European conferences is to see how other systems work in Europe and I've also had the opportunity to speak to American lawyers and to see the legal system operate in Pakistan. Everybody is envious of our system in this country, almost akin to the way they are envious of the NHS. The government has to be very careful that they don't break it beyond repair.

Q: How do you spend your time when you're not working or supporting the association?

A: Until I had a knee injury, I played cricket and the last team I played cricket for was London Welsh in the Surrey league. My sporting claim to fame is that I once bowled Mark Ramprakash.