Transport law specialist Backhouse Jones can trace its lineage back 200 years. Today, it is focused on using a knowledge base to work with and assist the industry
Specialist transport law practices can be worth their weight in gold, but there is a lot that goes into such a business to enable it to advise, represent and defend a coach or bus operator in a wide variety of situations. Backhouse Jones, with offices in Clitheroe and London, can trace its lineage back 200 years to when Richard Backhouse started a clerkship in Preston.
James and Jonathon Backhouse are the seventh generation of the family to practice law, and they are two of the current-day firm’s directors.
“Our family came into road transport law in the 1930s,” says Jonathon. “There was no real regulation until then, and thus no need for specialist legal representation.”
For decades after that, the Backhouse family was kept busy in the North West. It was the UK’s industrial and transport hub.
Prior to coach and then bus deregulation in the 1980s, there was lots of work to be had on behalf of independent operators, who would find that their applications for service licences would generate objections from the National Bus Company.
The introduction of tachographs also led to several high-profile cases around the same time. Since then, expectations surrounding compliance have become more nuanced. That in turn has led to a rise in demand for specialist transport solicitors.
On the road
James studied law at university before entering the legal field, but Jonathon initially did not. He had a variety of jobs, including driving a van, teaching horse riding and working in the furniture industry.
“Then my employer went bankrupt. I called my father. He told me to start studying law. I spoke to every university within commuting distance of Preston looking for a suitable place. I found one and began to work part-time for the family business,” he says.
In 1994, James left his employer, also to join his father’s firm. Even with mainstream legal experience, it takes between five and seven years to become a competent transport lawyer. That it reflected in Backhouse Jones’ approach to bringing young people into the business.
“Our method is to teach them from the bottom up. Youngsters often join us for work experience and then stay with us,” says Jonathon.
“Although we have recruited a small number of mature lawyers, it is important that transport is approached in a different manner to other legal sectors.
“The client often needs answers very quickly. There is usually a compressed period of time between us being made aware of the problem and a Public Inquiry (PI) being held; it can be as little as four or five weeks.”
But Backhouse Jones is not all about representing operators at PI. Its subscription-based model gives access to legal advice on a wide variety of business-related topics, both in general – such as concerning human resources – and those specific to transport.
“That’s about trying to ensure that clients engage with us before making major decisions that can affect their company,” says James.
“As an example, accountants sometimes advise changing entity from a partnership to a limited company. An accountant would have no reason to know that if that is done, a new O-Licence must be obtained. It’s a lot cheaper to get advice at that stage than it is to try to defend it at a PI.”
A material change
In 1998, James and Jonathon’s father died suddenly. The family practice was busy. Issues related to bus competition in Greater Manchester were providing a lot of work. Both twins remember the loyalty shown by more than one client during that period and they say it has not been forgotten.
The business had three options at that time. Continue as it was, merge with another practice or develop further. The latter was favoured, but it quickly dawned that a strong brand was needed.
When James was employed by a law firm in Manchester, he worked with Ian Jones. After James left to join his father’s business they remained friends, and Ian was subsequently approached to become part of what is now Backhouse Jones.
Many operators will be familiar with Ian’s characterful and engaging presentations at industry meetings and conferences. Since he joined, Backhouse Jones has grown to employ around 60 staff, but it retains the family connection with its customers.
“We often share that dynamic with our clients. We understand how family businesses work, because we are one,” says James. “Additionally, law firms are regulated, just as transport operators are. Because we’ve built our own business, we grasp how commercial aspects work.”
Although Backhouse Jones’ roots are in Lancashire, it practices nationwide. That allows it to learn from developments across the road transport spectrum and use that knowledge to help its clients. That’s important, says Ian; operators often receive little formal guidance on some important matters.
When quizzed on the main issues that face the industry, the three men highlight several areas. What frustrates them most is the relationship between operators and Traffic Commissioners (TCs) and DVSA.
“The regulatory regime should not be based around punishment,” says James. “A negative culture achieves nothing. There should be no fear among operators of interacting with a TC or DVSA.
“Earned Recognition is an attempt to address that, but it focuses on those operators that are already at the top of their game.
“Where change is required is lower down the scale. That is where positivity should be focused. The authorities should clearly state what they want to see, and how they will assist in delivering it.”
They agree that dishonesty, incompetence and other ‘rogue’ traits should certainly lead to the revocation of an O-Licence. But they also believe that there should be more focus on a ‘near-miss’ culture, where facts are examined and a plan for is rectification put in place.
There has has been a focus on bus reliability recently. Operators must do their best to manage it, but they need also do the same with driver performance. Both are challenging things to get exactly right.
“We have seen accidents where any operator could have been exposed to the same circumstances,” says Jonathon.
“If a driver’s approach to their work changes, questions should be asked why. The easiest starting point is change, and that applies to anyone in a safety critical role. If you see that change, you should ask why it is happening.”
It’s also important for operators to engage with the wider industry. That can help them to avoid some common pitfalls. There is still a lack of awareness about some requirements relating to maintenance, and the issue of a business’s entity – largely involving partnerships – still comes up regularly.
To help mitigate against those problems, the idea of having robust, reliable and reassuring advice at the end of a telephone is one that appeals to many operators.
Transport law’s importance has also been grasped by the wider legal sector. Backhouse Jones recently won the Boutique Firm Award at the Lawyer Awards 2019, where it came up against some larger national practices.
“That’s recognition of our own success, but it also acknowledges that transport is an important sector,” says James. “Transport is often hidden in plain sight. Our success at the Lawyer Awards helps to bring a focus to the industry.”
Backhouse Jones’s path as a business after it formulated a 20-year plan in 1999 is similar to some of the coach and bus industry’s success stories. It has focused on building a brand, recruiting young, keen staff and delivering a service that its customers are willing to pay for.
“We still speak to operators today who remember working with our father,” says Jonathon. “None of our forefathers would recognise today’s transport industry. But law has also changed greatly. We are proud both to have built our business, and to work with our clients to help them to build theirs.”