Government will watch file-sharing firmsFile-sharing debate hits House of Lords

09 March 2010

The scales of justice held up

The government has said it will keep a close watch on the activities of 'file-sharing' legal firms ACS: Law Solicitors and Tilly Bailey & Irvine (TBI).

The reassurance was offered by the Labour Peer Lord Young of Norwood Green, the parliamentary under-secretary at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, on the first day of the House of Lords’ debate over amendments to the Digital Economy Bill.

One of the amendments being debated concerned the controversy surrounding the volume litigation model employed by Davenport Lyons (DL), ACS Law and TBI when pursuing alleged illegal file-sharers.

Our website includes advice on what to do if you’re accused of illegal file-sharing

The issue had been raised with the Lords by Which? Computing after more than 160 readers contacted the magazine to say they had received letters by one of the three firms wrongly-accusing them of illegally sharing copyright- protected material over the internet.

Government shares concerns over file-sharing letters

When asked during the debate whether the government was planning to intervene in the growing row over the volume litigation model used by these law firms Lord Young responded:

‘We will continue to pursue this problem with Ministry of Justice and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). I will give that assurance because we share the concerns that this problem does not look as though it will go away even if the Bill is enacted.’

Commenting on the government response, Deborah Prince, Which?'s head of legal affairs, said: ‘It’s all very well the government saying it is watching these two firms but we want to see them take action. The government needs to put something in place, by way of regulatory or law change, which makes it impossible for lawyers to behave in this way.

Government urged to clamp down on volume litigation

Prince added that there should be rules in place to protect customers from volume litigation. 

‘Volume litigation is going to grow and the rules of engagement concerning this area haven’t been formulated. Consumers need to be protected from erroneous claims. Some law firms are looking at volume litigation as a way of making money, which they are entitled to do, but certainly not at the expense of innocent consumers.

She added: ‘The government should be engaging with the Law Society and the SRA to make sure that the right checks, balances or processes are in place to ensure that law firms cannot see volume litigation as a licence to print money and that they should behave properly, in accordance with the basic tenets of the profession.’

Volume-litigation is the process whereby legal firms package the same claims against a large number of defendants using pro-forma letters and documents, and launches a ‘volume’ case. This method is employed an effort to reduce the costs of pursuing hundreds of similar actions and thereby maximising profitability.

Thousands accused of illegal file-sharing activity

In March 2007 DL - on behalf of a number of clients including Topware Interactive, Codemasters, Reality Pump, Techland and Atari - sent letters to 500 individuals who it claimed were illegally sharing copyright-protected material over the internet using P2P networks. In July, DL publically announced that it was pursuing in excess of 6000 alleged copyright infringements.

The DL ‘cease and desist’ letters gave the alleged copyright infringer the chance to settle the claim provided they paid approximately £600 in damages and costs, and signed an undertaking to refrain from committing the alleged offences. The DL letters threatened those who refused to settle or prove their innocence with further civil action and a rising scale of damages.

Which? described DL’s conduct as ‘bullying’ and ‘excessive’, and said many of the recipients had not committed the alleged infringements. In December 2008 it reported the firm to the SRA. In 2009 DL ceased carrying out illegal file sharing enforcement work, just as ACS: Law began a similar scheme for different companies . 

This firm has since sent out thousands of similar letters. A further firm, Tilly Bailey & Irvine Solicitors, began sending out illegal file sharing enforcement letters in 2010.

Three days after Lord Young issued his promise, the SRA made it known that it was referring DL’s former intellectual property partner Brian Miller and current equity partner David Gore to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.

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