02 February 2007

Computer Contracts: No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Since we moved to the Huddersfield Media Centre just over 2 years ago our chambers have done quite a lot of work pro bono. One of the things I do is to sit on an "expert panel" of "The Best Practice Network" which is an advice and information resource funded by West Yorkshire Business Link. The service includes a forum through which users can post questions for the so called experts. I am the only barrister on the panel but there are also a couple of good, local solicitors.

One of the questions in today's forum was:
"Is there somewhere I can get decent sample IT support contracts from, as our current IT support contract that we get customers to sign isn't worth the paper its written on (quite embarrassing when a customer calls you round to laugh at you about it.. still they signed it )also is there anyone who offers a legal contract checking service (ideally cheap / free) as our hosting contract is pretty tight, I just want to make sure that there it nothing in there that is worded wrong which might sting us / client."

Two of us answered the question and you can see our replies for yourselves by clicking this link. The point that prompted this post was the notion that good quality specialist legal advice might be free. As I said in my reply
"It takes at least as long to train a lawyer as it does an ICT professional. Moreover, a lawyer capable of advising an ICT professional satisfactorily will usually have practical
experience and, sometimes, professional qualifications in the relevant technology as well as in the law. The only way such a lawyer can recoup his or her investment in acquiring such expertise, not to mention the costs of running his or her practice,
is by charging for it."

Pretty obvious I should have thought. After all Microsoft charges for its software, IBM for its consultancy, Zen for its website and so on.

However, it is also true that legal services are far too expensive in this country, especially when compared to Continental Europe, and whereas other luxuries such as air fares and mobile phones have plummeted in price professional services have gone the other way.

HMG puts its faith in greater competition between professionals. That appears to be the policy behind the Legal Services Bill. But will that happen? After all no distinction is made in the USA between the role of patent counsel, patent solicitor and patent agent so alternative business structures already exist there. But are legal services better or cheaper there than here? A better solution in my view would be to repeal paragraph 1 of Sched. 2 to the Access to Justice Act 1999.

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