ACS:Law Anti-Piracy Hunt Takes Toll On Legal Profession

Today, anti-piracy group DigiProtect are again quoted by the BBC as having no regrets about their controversial campaign file-sharing hunt in the UK. Nevertheless, their actions don't come without cost. Their lawyers, ACS:Law, have had more than 280 official complaints filed against them with the UK legal regulatory body, dwarfing all comers in the IP sector.

Today, anti-piracy company DigiProtect are being featured in an article by the BBC where they defend their UK file-sharing witch-hunt. As usual, the firm says its just protecting rights holders when it demands cash payments from individuals, without solid proof that the accused have actually done something wrong.

Notably, the German-based outfit refused to tell the BBC the names of its clients, but this is to be expected. Part of the DigiProtect service is to shield the brand image of its clients by taking all the adverse publicity these campaigns generate by taking it on their own chin. However, despite putting themselves front and center for criticism, it doesn’t actually play out like that.

It is ACS:Law, the tiny one-lawyer UK law firm who do the ‘dirty work’ for DigiProtect, which gets all the attention. Unlike lawyers Davenport Lyons and more recently Tilly Bailey & Irvine who withdrew from this business due to the damage it was causing to their reputations, ACS:Law don’t care about the negative publicity. Considering the huge amounts of money they’re bringing in, some might consider their defiance understandable.

But perhaps ACS:Law should stop for a moment and think about the damage being done to the reputation of their profession and to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA), the body charged with the task of ensuring the law business in the UK isn’t brought into disrepute. As we will now reveal, the toll is considerable.

During the debates about the Digital Economy Bill in the House of Lords, repeated mentions were made that the appropriate route of complaint for recipients of demands relating to filesharing accusations is via complaints to the appropriate legal authorities. Comments along these lines were made by Lord Young, despite his department having received a number of complaints from individuals stating they had exhausted all their options.

It was therefore surprising that the following comment was made on record during these debates: (Lord Young – 20 Jan 10)

“The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said that these actions are appalling and unacceptable, but nobody has referred them to any of the regulatory bodies. I find that strange. We are saying that we have had thousands of these cases yet nobody has said that this law firm is acting in a totally unacceptable way. I should have thought that the legal regulatory bodies would by now have been involved and I am puzzled why they have not been.”

As a result of this claim, which he knew to be untrue, John Fletcher (working with Beingthreatened.com) discovered that the total number of complaints to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) could be found using a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which the SRA voluntarily honor.

An FOIA request was made and the results are astonishing.

By the end of December 2009, a full month before Lord Young claimed “nobody had referred [ACS:Law and Davenport Lyons] to the regulatory bodies”, more than 247 individual complaints had in fact been made to the SRA.

At the answering of the FOIA request, nearly 300 complaints had been made against a total of three law firms. Of these, 14 complaints are recorded as having been resolved in one case file, which would have pertained to Davenport Lyons and 3 complaints at the time of the request were against Tilly Bailey and Irvine. So what about the rest?

As of 22 March 2010, a staggering 283 of these complaints related to the activities of ACS:Law.

Together, the individual complaints made against mainly ACS:Law (and to a much lesser extent Tilly Bailey & Irvine and Davenport Lyons) over the past two years dwarfs the levels of SRA complaints relating to any other area of intellectual property law in the UK.

Furthermore, in September 2009, complaints against ACS:Law topped out at over 16% of the 500 complaints made in total to the SRA for the whole month.

But there is a serious problem. The SRA is there to serve the public by ensuring that disreputable lawyers are quickly kept in check, and to this end they have to adhere to timeliness targets.

The information published by the Office of the Legal Services Complaint Commissioner (OLSCC) in their annual report has set the following timeliness targets for the SRA and the Legal Complaints Service (LCS):

Timeliness Target T1 – 6 Month Closures: The Legal Complaints Service to investigate and conclude at least 87% of cases within 6 months of receipt.

Timeliness Target T2 – 12 Month Closures: The Legal Complaints Service to investigate and conclude 100% of cases within 12 months, apart from in exceptional circumstances.

The Freedom of Information request referred to above discovered that of the 14 complaints made regarding the activity of Davenport Lyons:

· Only 7% of cases were closed within 6 months of receipt (against the target of 87%).

· 29% of cases were closed within 12 months of receipt.

This means that a huge 64% of all complaints failed to meet targets T1 and T2, yet no explanation has been given by the SRA as to the exceptional circumstances preventing these complaints being resolved quicker.

We can also see from the FOIA request that the complaints against ACS:Law appear to be following exactly the same pattern.

In this case the complaints have not yet been concluded, but at the time of writing 51% of complaints have already passed beyond the 6 month target (according to target less than 13% should have done so). We are also less than two months from the first complaints against ACS:Law also exceeding the 12 month target.

To our knowledge no complainant has been kept up to date on the timeliness of their complaints nor given any indication of their progress. This appears to be completely unacceptable, especially given the continued failing to meet targets.

Sadly, the office that set the targets is due to have closed on the 31st March, and therefore is no longer in a position to uphold them, but those who have made complaints should persist as they deserve and have a right to be heard.

Those affected should take their cases to the Office of the Legal Services Ombudsman and the Ministry of Justice to ask why these timeliness targets have not been adhered to and why there has been no communication as to the progress of their complaint.

One could perhaps conclude that the reasons for the delays are obvious. Due to the activities of ACS:Law, DigiProtect and their faceless, entirely non-UK clients, the systems of the SRA have been entirely overwhelmed. This means that not only do recipients of these letters get a poor service from the SRA, but quite possibly complainants in other areas of law.

But despite these huge and growing problems, Andrew Crossley from ACS:Law is absolutely defiant that he will continue to operate this scheme in the UK. His claim that his number one priority is protecting copyright is increasingly falling on deaf ears, particularly when he revealed recently that in the last 11 months alone he had collected £1 million from letter recipients.

The cost to the legal profession overall, however, can’t be measured in terms of money. Some things have greater value.

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