SJ Interview: Elaine Walker
Elaine Walker tells Solicitors Journal what being a senior leader at a claims solicitor firm involves, why her sector is maligned by many and what she thinks the future of financial mis-selling scandals might be.
In under four years, Elaine Walker has taken Legal UK Services, which she founded with Matthew Lee in 2020, from a start-up to the leading financial claims specialist in the UK. It represents consumers in PPI, Plevin, personal contract plans (PCP) and other mis-selling cases. As Legal Director, Elaine runs the company, based in Altrincham, Greater Manchester, on a day-to-day basis, as well as overseeing case work. She previously worked as a solicitor and partner in personal-injury and financial-mis-selling legal firms across, the North West, including Dalgarno Solicitors in Warrington.
How did you come to start Legal UK Services?
I was a partner in a personal-injury firm but with fixed-costs changes, among other things, I decided to have a fresh start and retrain in another sector. Financial mis-selling law appealed because it’s about helping the man in the street get an outcome that can make a big difference to their lives. It’s David versus Goliath – ordinary people against the big banks and insurance firms. It’s not like criminal law, which I did for a year, where you don’t always feel good about a positive outcome for your client.
After retraining, I worked for a firm that covered mis-selling for a couple of years and helped found another. Then I met Matthew when we worked on a mis-selling project together. We got talking and realised we had a shared vision of creating a very niche, consumer-driven firm that didn’t muddy the waters by doing all sorts of claims, but just focused on financial mis-selling to consumers.
We bought a shell alternative business structure and got authorization from the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority (SRA) to press ahead with Legal UK Services. This was just as the very first lockdown hit, but we flourished and have gone on to work with thousands of consumers and helped claim back more than £6m in compensation.
We currently have 50 staff members, including paralegals, solicitors, apprentices and administration staff. We also have a temporary outsourced team. We’re always looking for people with attention to detail and that can do maths. You'd be surprised how many people can't. It’s rather key when you have to calculate things all the time!
What’s your day-to-day role as a legal director?
It varies all the time. But, in general, I’m taking calls on my way the office. Then at 10am, most days, I’ll have a catch-up meeting with members of the team. We’ll talk about what stage we are with projects, what we're going to do for the following week and any difficulties we're encountering as well as what we are succeeding at. I don’t handle individual cases myself, but I do oversee them. So, in the morning, I’ll do a file surgery for anybody who has got any issues. I’ll advise them on how they could approach the case differently. Talk about relevant cases that we and other firms have taken to court and how any judgments will affect how we approach new cases, perhaps.
I am also the compliance officer for the firm. This means I spend a fair bit of time making sure we are fulfilling the obligations and procedures the SRA requires us to. Is everything on the website as it should be? Has every case had an anti-money laundering check?
Recently, the SRA has insisted that we check whether there are financial restrictions against any of our clients. We need to comply with any financial sanctions. Not that we're acting for any Russians or wealthy individuals! But the SRA is very much one size fits all. I tend to have my legal hat on in the morning, but the rest of the time my role is something similar to being a managing director.
My afternoons can involve anything from budget meetings to calls with funders, and talking about how we move the business forward. I'm constantly looking to the future and making sure that we’re always developing our systems and processes so we can continue to offer affordable access to justice.
What’s your favourite part of working in financial mis-selling?
It’s an emergent area of law that was rarely heard off 10 years ago. It's constantly evolving – very, very fluid. The challenge of that keeps the old grey matter going. We’re always looking for additional guidance from the courts on how best to present cases, according to what the judgement is on the latest case. Financial mis selling is based on statutory law. Judgements at really high levels are constantly carving out this sector. I know it sounds crazy, but keeping on top of all these new directions and rulings, is enjoyable.
We’re always looking out to see what is happening in the market and how we can expand our client offerings. Sometimes it feels like the banks can't figure out how to act within their own regulatory framework and they don’t worry about their regulatory duties in the same way we as solicitors do.
You come up against some big banks and financial companies in your work. What challenges and difficulties do you encounter?
The most obvious one is the depth of the big banks’ pockets. They often instruct magic circle law firms who are on a hell of a lot of money per hour and want to fight absolutely everything that they possibly can. We’re trying to provide a cost-efficient service to ordinary people while these lawyers want to push us all the way to trial on every case or, at least, frustrate the process.
We’ve had situations where we’ve made a data subject access request on behalf of a client and the banks have written to them and said “we’ve got concerns about the legitimacy of this firm.” Banks have also tried to starve out some of our industry colleagues. They’ve issued cheques and then withdrawn them or not reissued them so legal practices are deprived of the capital they need to keep going. Some firms haven’t survived that.
The big financial institutions know that if they slow down the process, they’ll still be around, whereas smaller firms like us need the flow of money to keep the lights on and paying the wages.
Why do you think the public often has a negative perception of financial mis-selling legal firms?
Anybody who deals with compensation claims for the man on the street gets saddled with a bad reputation, because of who we’re up against. In personal injury, it was the insurance industry. In financial mis-selling, it’s the banks. These people have a seat around the table in Houses of Parliament meeting rooms. They have access to the country’s leaders and opinion formers. The man on the street doesn’t. So invariably, the financial institutions are able to put the messages out that we’re the bad guys, taking all your money.
Personal injury solicitors are painted as ambulance chasers who are facilitating fraudulent claims. With financial mis-selling, it’s claimed that we are making opportunistic claims that really don't have any merit. They say our fee should be capped because there's no real work that goes into what we do.
People tend to think that because PPI was dealt with through an agreed redress scheme, other kinds of mis-selling are in the same vein. That claims management and solicitor firms just fire out standard letters and the money comes rolling in.
But there is no redress scheme for most mis-selling scandals. The banks are pushing case after case to trial and all of our fee earners have to have advocacy experience, which comes at a price. You have to issue court proceedings, pay all the court fees, turn up to the hearings, prepare witness statements, comply with all of the civil procedure rules.
Every individual case is different, too. There are varying levels of sophistication in finance agreements, for instance, and different consumers have different understandings of what they signed and what they were told by brokers. We also get tarred with the same brush as some unscrupulous claims-management companies that don’t do very much for their clients or that have run off with people's compensation money.
What can firms do to improve the sector’s reputation?
The only way is to constantly help clients, as best we can, be scrupulous, and ask our clients to tell people that we’ve done a great job. The court process is not something I would recommend anybody do without the assistance of a lawyer. The magic circle firms who are acting for the banks will walk all over them.
We need to help people understand the crucial assistance and value they are getting by working with an organisation like us. Which is a difficult one, because no one likes to part with their cash!
I feel that the financial mis-selling legal sector is evolving more positively and faster than some other legal areas. There is more collaboration between firms in this area of law than I've ever experienced anywhere else. And that’s necessary because of who we're up against. We need to work together to understand the latest challenges and constantly develop our tactics.
To be able to continue to provide affordable access to justice, we need to put in increasingly streamlined processes, including a degree of automation. But that’s very, very difficult to put in place without the heavy hand of the SRA coming down on you because they really don't understand it.
What current or future developments are likely to make life harder or easier for firms in your sector?
The banks have been in the SRA’s ear to say that solicitors shouldn’t be involved in claims management activities. So, fees are now capped, unless you're going into litigation with these cases.
But the types of claim we can handle are ever growing – things like gap insurance, push payment fraud.
We’re still working on several Plevin cases. These focus on secret commissions charged on PPI policies and can still be pursued, even though the main PPI deadline has passed. How much mileage is left in this area depends on the outcome of some cases that we're waiting to conclude. The main one is Canada Square Operations Ltd v Potter. The outcome could mean that millions of policy holders could still make a claim. But if the case goes against the claimant – Mrs Potter - then the door is going to be shut soon on Plevin cases. We’re expecting a ruling anytime now as it was heard by the Supreme Court in June 2022.
Another firm of solicitors has recently issued an application seeking permission from the Court to bring these cases by way of group litigation. We don’t know what will happen here. Whatever the outcome, there are still millions of PPI policies that remain unclaimed. It will just be the route to redress that may be longer if it proceeds under group litigation.
What will be the next PPI?
There’s an awful lot of movement around PCP, at the moment. The Financial Ombudsman Service has seen an increase in complaints from 6.128 to 11,446, in the last financial year. There are also lots of cases being litigated. They are only in the lower courts at the moment so there's not a great deal of legal guidance to follow, making PCP definitely a growing area.