Lawyers in Glass Houses (or, indeed, Cubicles)

Paris Hotel de Ville ready for a visit by George V and Queen Mary. From the Universite de Caen collection on Flickr Commons.

Paris Hotel de Ville ready for the state visit of George V and Queen Mary in April 1914. From the Universite de Caen collection on Flickr Commons.

Not long ago, I visited two very different solicitors’ offices in the space of the same week. The first was a stone-built Victorian warren of rooms in a rural Derbyshire market town. The firm had been in the same premises since at least the mid-nineteenth century, and it showed: from the faded posters advertising farm auctions that had taken place before the first world war, to the massive walk-in safe which was itself literally big enough to accommodate a meeting, it was testimony to the part that the firm had played in the local economy, and the ties that bound the two together. It was also dark and gloomy, badly organised for modern business needs, and I suspect the winter heating bills are tremendous. On the other hand, it had character by the bucketload.

The same week I visited the offices of another firm. The office building itself dated from the 1920s, but the designers had been given free play over the interior. Open-plan ruled. The old dividing walls between rooms had been swept away, and glass partitions now divided the working areas, including the meeting rooms. One particularly striking feature was the design of two meeting rooms on the ground floor, which had full-height windows on the street side, and full-height glass partitions on the interior side. If the window blinds had been raised, the effect would have been pretty much as if you were holding a meeting in a terrarium, with the added feature that any stray passer-by could stand and watch you (and presumably peer at the documents on the table if they felt so inclined). Understandably, therefore, the window blinds remain permanently lowered, at least on the street side. It seemed an odd place to put a meeting room, but perhaps the exigencies of the building demanded it.

These offices were light and bright and, I imagine, much more cheerful and pleasant to work in; but they seemed much less connected to the local community and the local economy. They also have far less character: I visit more or less the same office in different parts of the country all the time. Something always seems to get lost when the designers get going; and there are other dangers in glass walls, asĀ  S v J & Ors [2016] EWHC 586 (Fam) demonstrates.

S v J is an interesting decision, which will feature in the upcoming edition of Family Property News. Ms S sought (and obtained) declarations under the MWPA that she owned substantially more of the equity in two properties than her partner, Mr J. There will be more detail on the trusts of land aspects of the case in FPN, but one other feature was that Ms S claimed that she had been placed under considerable pressure by Mr J to enter into a mortgage re-financing deal which was very much to her disadvantage. Mr J was described as having a volatile temperament, and Ms S’s evidence was that she was “walking on eggshells” during the time that the deal, which was his pet project, was being put together. She was caring for one child of less than a year old and was pregnant with their second child, and in the circumstances felt extremely vulnerable.

When Ms S attended the solicitors’ office to execute the charges and receive independent legal advice about her position, the meeting took place in a glass-walled room. Mr J was outside the room throughout the meeting, waiting in the reception area. The Judge (Roberts LJ) noted that “throughout the course of this one to one meeting, the applicant told me that she could see the respondent through the glass wall. He was sitting in the reception area looking at her”. It is not expressly said that this situation was at the very least stressful for Ms S, but given that she specifically mentioned it in her evidence, it is likely that it was.

In fact, Ms S was at that moment being given very clear (and very sensible) evidence not to enter into the charges, but one suspects that the impact of that advice on her was substantially decreased by her being under observation by Mr J throughout. Matters cannot have been made any easier by her awareness that the solicitor was telling her the opposite of what Mr J, who was directly in her eyeline, had been telling her about the whole arrangement.

As it happens, Ms S did not claim that she was entitled to set aside the charges as against Mr J because of his undue influence; the facts of her case did not support it. But it’s clear that this situation could well arise in cases where there is either real or presumed undue influence, and the fact that the oppressor was able, throughout a crucial interview, to glare at the oppressed might be important. It’s all too foreseeable in such circumstances that a client might well come back to the solicitor and complain that her interests were not properly prioritised, and that she should not have been put in a position where her oppressor was able to fix his eye on her in an intimidating manner through a glass partition.

At the very least, ensuring that the client has a safe space, where she can hear and respond to independent advice away from the gravitational pull of the person who wants her to enter into the transaction, is good client care. It’s good care even if you have no reason to believe that there is any possibility of undue influence; the whole point of the “independent legal advice” requirement is to get the client to focus, unimpeded, on her own interests and position, and the requirement to give that advice arises when she is proposing to enter into an agreement to her disadvantage, not when there is any suspicion that undue influence may be at work.

In other words, when you give independent legal advice in a glass-walled office, lower the blinds. Better still, ensure that the client is given advice well away from the person who will benefit from the transaction, and certainly not within his field of vision.

In this respect at least, the antiquated offices in Derbyshire — with its massive panelled doors and gargantuan Victorian furniture — would have suited the purpose better than the light, bright city offices. It would hardly be possible to imagine a safer space, although it would certainly be possible to imagine a more comfortable one. The old ways are not always the worst.