The outlook wasn’t looking great for criminal legal aid in early 2002 when four solicitors with an average age of approximately 34 decided to open their own criminal defence firm, six years had passed since the last increase in legal aid rates, but little did any of us now that in the week of our 20th anniversary we would be considering action against The Government’s failure to fund legal aid that had remained static since 1996.
It’s curious that despite many significant changes during that period during which we have also restructured ourselves and adapted, sometimes by choice and other times through necessity, the level of public funding for our clients essentially declined. This is despite there being 11 holders of the post of Lord Chancellor and five (at the time of writing) Prime Ministers.
Having operated from Paul Butcher’s North London living room cum stationary cupboard from July 2nd until the end of August, we found a cavernous three floor space right opposite Kings Cross station. It was ideal for our practice, the traditional vice industries teaming the streets that were to become gentrified into a new postal district a decade later. Some of the regular fixtures of those streets still exist as clients, displaced to other areas. Many, now 20 years older have sadly not been able to break the cycle of offending and short sentences. They have in essence spent a large part of the past 20 years in custodial institutions, creating in some cases almost 100 matter starts for the firm (albeit paid at 1996 rates ). As steps were taken to clean up Kings Cross, a new tool was introduced to the area of undesirables . Partner Jim Skelsey became an bit of an ASBO expert, successfully challenging applications brought by Camden and Islington Councils.
As the volume and nature of work grew, so did the firm until we eventually filled three floors in Kings Cross and continued to build our profile as one of London’s most established criminal defence firm acting in some of the most high profile criminal cases. Outside our office the heavy machinery took down the iconic frontage of Kings Cross station and replaced it with a spacious Piazza. Behind the railway station an entire neighbourhood was being built where previously sex workers had solicited some of the country’s most senior officials; 1-3 Euston Rd became a “boutique hotel “ and the firm moved to Grays Inn Rd. Meanwhile, ten years without any improvement legal aid rates , the firm , like many of our competitors had to make the drastic step to downsize. Another move to Gower Street followed , before the Pandemic of 2020 taught us that how to work flexibly and make better use of space enabling us to take up residence in Holborn.
We had always been proud of our principles of access to justice, partner Jonathan Black leading the fight as president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association against Ministry of Justice plans to create supermarket firms providing legal advise on the cheap. However despite our passion for providing accessible legal services to local communities, in recent years the cocktail of regulatory demands by the legal aid agency, inefficiencies caused by court closures and police cut backs set against a diminishing return has caused us to decline certain instructions. The firm now provides a significant proportion of our work on a privately funded basis. Legal aid simply cannot not pay bills, the work is an additional public service which we are proud to provide within our capacity. That was not envisaged by the youngish idealist and energetic lawyers who started from scratch in 2002, but like many of our contemporaries we have adapted to mix our practice.
Some might describe the firm as boutique but we prefer to save that description for the businesses that now occupy Kings Cross. We identify ourselves as neither a small firm, boutique firm or large firm, but simply BSB solicitors .
We thank all those that have worked for us over the past 20 years, from senior solicitors, the numerous trainees who have qualified with us, consultants, paralegals and most importantly support staff. We also remember Bill Nash, a popular member of the firm and a passionate lawyer from a tradition that we will no longer see as we witness the well recorded drought of young lawyers wanting to practice criminal defence.
Where BSB solicitors will be marking 30 years remains to be seen but in the meantime we look forward to continue to working with clients and colleagues across the justice system as we enter the next decade of our journey.