In the wars of opinion, the Law Society is like a four-star general. Not only does it have to fight a mean war with the profession it represents, it also has to wage a mean battle of opinion with the public. But the society is losing both the battle and the war.
The distractions of the Clementi review have allowed Chancery Lane to grow fat, with staff costs up 33 per cent and consultancy fees up to 8 per cent of turnover. Despite throwing money at itself, the society has earned another stinging rebuke from the legal services ombudsman Zahida Manzoor. Its handling of complaints has got worse, with Manzoor being satisfied with only 53.3 per cent of complaints referred to her this year, down from 67.2 per cent last year (the target is 75 per cent), and the society failing to reach five out of six targets set by the Department of Constitutional Affairs.
In an attempt to dodge the bullets, the society has tried to give the impression that it has been working hard for years to bring about regulatory reform. Not so. But for the Clementi review, the society would have no plans for a radical change of the regulatory framework. To make matters worse, its no-sparkle response to Clementi drew the support of only 10 per cent of the profession.
So, who cares that the Law Society is failing? The answer is that we should all care. The law is a fundamental part of our lives. Like it or not, the justice system depends on lawyers.
There has never before been a greater need for a strong independent body to protect the rule of the law from a government which is trying to draft a constitutional bill from a few ideas written on the back of a fag packet.
In its latest report, the Parliamentary Constitutional Affairs Committee has warned that with criminal defendants and asylum seekers receiving legal aid almost automatically, there is little left over for civil cases, such as education, housing, welfare and employment. Lawyers are abandoning civil legal aid, leaving large parts of the country as advice deserts where the poor, the disabled and the disadvantaged are not able to access the justice system, causing hardship and social exclusion.
This is one battle the Law Society can, and should, stand and fight against. The society has a duty to act in the public interest. But first it must inspire the support and confidence of its own members, without which it is bound to fail in the political arena. Why should the Government heed the voice of an organisation that cannot even summon up the support of its own members? It is time to behave like a real trade union and to give up the cosy chats with government ministers in favour of a more robust and direct approach. The justice system is worth fighting for, so if the health service and education can bring people onto the streets in protest, why not the administration of justice? Chancery Lane is not so high and mighty that it should not get down and dirty.
The Government is full of lawyers who should know better, but all the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith and the Solicitor General Harriet Harman have been prepared to do so far is encourage the profession to fill the funding gap left by the under-funding of legal aid with more pro bono work.
Where to start? A good place would be for the new society president Edward Nally to find the words to apologise. Only real candour on the Law Society’s failings will soften those who have lost faith in their governing body. The Law Society lost the public’s trust a long time ago when successive presidents failed to get a grip on complaints handling. But legal aid is a rallying point. It is the doorway to the justice system. It could be the Law Society’s way back. It could turn public opinion. Not fat cat lawyers, but caring lawyers fighting to improve the justice system for the benefit of all society.
A popular legal profession? It could happen.