Written by Jaya Harrar
Lawyer Monthly had the pleasure of speaking with Dr Katherine Theodotou earlier this month; Katherine is an impressive professional who has not only had significant impact in the legal industry, but also in her work as a human rights activist. She has dedicated her life’s work to supporting and assisting those that are in need of help, as well as ensuring that the rights of others are protected, regardless of race, background or creed. This month we catch up with Katherine, who shares a little about her background, her current work and her campaign: Justice for Lawyers.
As a Game Changer in the legal profession, Katherine is constantly working on something new, ensuring she is fighting all corners for the rights to justice. During this month’s catch up, Katherine’s main concern involves the regulatory bodies in the legal industry.
Her homely office is situated in the heart of a friendly estate, surrounded by the beauty of multiculturalism; even in the busy nature of London, Katherine has managed to surround herself in an atmosphere to which truly depicts her personal nature. Amidst it all, I felt far away from the usual corporate, white-collar atmosphere that any other law firm boasts, and felt at home; the walls covered with certificates of achievements and photos with iconic individuals sprung a huge list of questions in my mind to ask Katherine.
Whilst giving me a personal tour of her office, Katherine proudly presents visible proof of the sheer amount of cases she has worked on. From top to bottom, three out of the four walls are covered with shelves packed with folders – each one representing a case Katherine has previously addressed. “Many of these cases had previously been rejected and I was told on many accounts to not take them on,” she explains, whilst I stare in awe over the sheer amount of work showcased on the walls.
Nonetheless, this is what sparked the basis of Katherine’s concern. Each legal professional wants to do right beside their client and not solely for their own personal gratification. Winning a challenging case not only proves your expertise, but also speaks volumes for the rights of others. But Katherine has been under the spotlight a few times for this reason.
She begins to explain, “I took them on because I had faith there was a way through. And I managed to win each one”, but this is where Katherine touches on a subject which she spoke about previously: “Regardless of trying my hardest, I still got scrutiny from authorities.”
When we last spoke at the start of the year, Katherine spoke about the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and how she is pushing for a better system and regulatory body. Being a bilateral lawyer, she is exposed to how two different countries work in regard to their legal system. “The Law Society and the SRA are two bodies people refer to in the UK. They are relatively independent from each other and have their own way of doing things. What we need is one system, which will benefit us all.”
Katherine is not shy to admit that she has often been subject to scrutiny under the SRA: “I truly believe they see that I am a bilateral lawyer and feel that I must be doing something dodgy. I say this as I am not the only one, I know many other lawyers who are under investigation and feel they have been wrongly accused. Majority of them are ethnic minorities.”
Katherine explains with passion, the reason she has decided to campaign for this and founded: Justice for Lawyers. “As you can see”, she explains whilst pointing to the vast amount of files around us, “I have a lot of work to do and I am constantly taking on new cases. The last thing I need, or anybody needs, is a regulatory body barging in, disrupting my work with very little evidence showing they have the right to do so.”
Katherine expands on this, explaining how when a complaint is presented to the SRA, they have no system in place to how they handle the situation. “If they come in and say, ‘we have had this complaint and we need these documents and a time and place to discuss the issue at hand’ there would be less of a problem. But they do not handle these cases in such a way and instead take action before examining the issue at hand.
“They put my work on hold, to obviously eventually find out that I have not done anything wrong. And I am not the only one that has had this issue. There really ought to be a better way to handle such things.”
With Katherine clearly having a very strong opinion about this, I decide to ask her what she thinks is the best way to handle such a situation.
“What we need is democracy in the legal profession. It works better this way, obviously”, she explains. Her suggested idea involved an electoral system: “What we need is a body of authorities that are elected and not simply chosen. Lawyers have the right to know who governs them and their intentions. There needs to be a better voice for independent firms, not just the top law firms.”
That is not the only issue Katherine has; as previously mentioned, she has stated that a lot of these cases which are often under scrutiny, she has paid out of her own pocket. “There are these huge legal fees associated with cases. Where does the money go? Usually to the barristers. I don’t think there is any need for legal fees to be so expensive. I think there should be a lower cap on how much people can charge.”
We both agreed on the fact that it is usually the disadvantaged, those who may not have the money, who often need to seek litigation due to unfair treatment, yet as Katherine simply stated: “Nobody can go to the court today when they are charging £600 an hour.”
Nevertheless, as we have learnt, Katherine is never one to stand down from voicing her true opinion, “They claim they will take action and demand to take my files, close my firm, without any authority to do so. I stood up to them, but how many people would do the same?”.
What happens to those who do not have the same gusto as Katherine? They shut down their firm. “This is why the small firms are closing down; if you fail to meet their demands they shut you down. I worked through it by organising my time in such a way: up until 12am, I work on my legal cases and from 12am to 4am, I would work through the vast amount of files the SRA required me to.”
Katherine urged that anyone who had suffered with a problem with the SRA, to approach her. She said “What we want to do is change the regime; I am taking part in the Law Exhibition in September, and I am urging people to join, because we are campaigning to change the regime.”
I began to wonder who was subject to such discrimination; Katherine states how she is bilateral and often assumed that as she is based in two countries, that she could be prone to committing fraud, however this is not always the case. “There are non-bilateral lawyers this has happened to, but it tends to be ethnic minorities. In fact, the SRA have been to court several times, on the account of racism.
“I know of a Nigerian barrister who returned from court after a case to find his firm locked up by the SRA. He took his case to court and won, because obviously they were in the wrong.”
Such behaviour allows us to address the issue which the legal sector has been battling with for a while; the prevailing notion that the field favours white, upper class people and is less welcoming towards diversity.
“The legal sector is still very ‘cliquey’, and something ought to be done. We are all here to serve the law and the law serves the community. I believe that the SRA are disallowing it”, Katherine states.
The disorganisation of the SRA spreads to the nature of how they undergo their regulations. According to Katherine, not only does the authority have a very weak method of seeking action towards a complaint, but they quite often alter their rules, she says: “One rule that was implied last week, is not there the following week, which creates a lot of confusion.”
To solve a problem, you must thoroughly examine the situation at hand and this is where Katherine believes the SRA is at fault. She addresses a more controversial issue: “An ombudsman can get paid around £50,000 a year. Their high salary allows them to not address the issue in the way that they probably should.”
Katherine even stated how labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has been a good friend of hers for many years, believes there needs to be better equality in the system. In fact, the two meet often to discuss issues around the inequality and injustice placed in society. In order for Katherine to stay true to being a Game Changer in the legal world, she has taken fearless risk to stand up for what she truly believes.
“I am not a hypocrite; I will always ensure my actions meet my words. When I went to the convention in Prague, which had been organised by small firms, the topic was of course open for discussion regarding the SRA changes and what the law society is doing about it; I stood up and spoke about how my firm in the UK is under constant investigation – where I have to defend what I am doing to people who do not know what I am actually doing -, but my firm in Cyprus is progressing well.
Even the president of The Law Society agrees that the SRA needs reconstructing. Nevertheless, I am not one of these people who speaks about something and do nothing”, she says. After passionately voicing her opinion on how the SRA needs to vastly improve to all those at the Prague Convention, Katherine received a standing ovation. “I spoke my voice and got a standing ovation, as people agree something needs to change”, she says, also discussing the importance behind her campaign: “You fight for justice for people, but you need justice for yourself; you can only fight for the rights if you have the system supporting you.”
As the afternoon went on, me and Katherine spoke deeply about the many issues those in dire need of justice face. Funnily enough, each problem related back to money. As I said, “Money is really the thing making this world go round.” Where the stereotype of a successful lawyer typically involves elaborate materialistic items, Katherine sees no interest in such things, as the simplest of things fulfils her. And as previously mentioned, her passion for equality extends in every aspect; the most enjoyable part of my visit were the furry workers in her office. “I have taken in stray and abandoned cats, as many tend to get ruthlessly run over in this area,” she explains. Even though we were meeting to discuss her achievements in the legal sector, we often got distracted discussing matters related to dogs, especially Highgate Hill’s office puppy. My personal favourite quote from Katherine herself, which nicely concludes why she is an important Game Changer in the legal field and human rights: “Look after the world, all living things alike. Everyone and everything deserves a life and we shouldn’t let man ruin that.”