Is it time to split up the society?
14 November 1995
Everyone supports efficiency, but there is only so much that can be saved through that route. This year's £20 reduction in the practising certificate fee is the result of efficiency savings and a forward-looking property strategy. No doubt further savings will be experienced in 1996, But for real cuts you need to stop doing some of the work.
The pressure is in the other direction: we need to give more support to the profession and we need to communicate more. Particularly during the last four years we need to be tougher on fraud. The SCB staff was increased to do this and they have succeeded - the average default is half what it was two years ago due to swifter action and better information. If this continues there will be savings on the compensation fund, but meanwhile we are paying for this possibility now.
The difficulty with cutting the Law Society's role is that for every member who wants to reduce an activity, our international role for example, there is another for whom that is the main benefit of membership.
But what about reform of the Law Society itself? The president would like to see a change of council members to those more sympathetic with his views. Whether it helps to foster a good working relationship between the existing council and the president to say this, is doubtful. Would a change of membership achieve much? Time and again we have had "reformers" and "rebels" join the council who then realise that the answers which seem so obvious are not simple but simplistic.
Perhaps what the society needs is a different structure to ensure the voice of the members is heard more directly.
One way this might be achieved is through sections. This is the way the American Bar Association operates. Earlier this year a group under the chairmanship of Tony Girling was set up to examine this.
A sectional approach would enable solicitors to join one or more sections which interest them. These sections would be run independently of the council with their own elected officers. Support could be provided through the Law Society, although this would have to be paid for. These sections would have the responsibilities that are exercised by the special interest associations combined with the work of the specialist committees of the society.
Major changes of policy would need council approval. In cross-border issues like legal aid, policies would be co-ordinated. This would not be too different from our existing arrangement where committees have the power to make policy statements, but within certain parameters.
The working group is looking at these ideas and considering the cost. We do not want to set up a massive bureaucracy. But if they can be made workable and inexpensive they will harness the enthusiasm of the many practitioners who are members of special interest associations and groups. It will give more practitioners the opportunity to contribute.
If this approach was adopted then the composition of the council would need to be reconsidered. Perhaps the constituency system should be replaced by sectional representation. Would that be too drastic? Would we accept a council elected for specialist expertise which, in theory, may be drawn from a small geographical area?
We need to debate these issues now, not in next year's presidential election. People vote for a package in an election not for each policy. Constitutional changes need separate consideration.