Coverage by The Lawyer of the Law Society's Provision of Information to Council Members missed the point!
The objectives of the guidelines are simple: to ensure that Law Society staff respond promptly to enquiries from council members and to provide staff with support and guidance about how to do so.
At a council meeting last December, I was directed to take steps to make it clear to staff that any unreasonable lack of openness would be viewed as an issue likely to lead to disciplinary action.
The response of my management team was to produce guidelines which inform staff that they have a duty to respond openly and promptly to requests for information from council members.
The general principles of the guidelines are to facilitate openness and full and relevant provision of information – good news and bad – by staff to council members.
They recognise that staff serve the profession, the council and office-holders of the Law Society.
Many of the society's staff also work for the public in fulfilment of the society's statutory and charter responsibilities. Staff cannot discharge these duties effectively if called upon to act in a partisan or political manner.
It is important to treat staff fairly. The Law Society is a large complex organisation. Some of the information which staff deal with is commercially sensitive, confidential, or the subject of political debate on the council.
Is it fair to ask staff members – some of whom may be relatively junior – to make difficult judgements and to expose themselves to disciplinary sanction or perhaps public criticism if they happen to get them wrong?
For example, a council member could ask a member of staff for information which would take many hours of work to compile. What if, at the time of the request, the staff member has urgent tasks to perform to fulfil objectives set by the council as whole?
The guidelines say to staff that they should consult their manager or director when they receive requests for information which presents this kind of difficulty.
Therefore, the guidelines are intended to help staff carry out their duty to provide accurate and timely information to council members. They are not intended to operate as a barrier to information.
Indeed, I believe the guidelines will be a first step towards a new and positive relationship between staff and council members, which will be based on:
a general approach of openness;
recognition that staff have a duty to provide all council members with honest, open and balanced advice; and
recognition that the council has changed in its nature and that politicisation of the council has an effect on the working of the staff.
It is important to point out that the council remains as accountable as ever to the profession for the running of the society and that nothing in the guidelines undermines the right of council members to request information in pursuit of this.
Likewise, nothing in the guidelines prevents a council member from raising the failure of a member of senior staff of the Law Society to provide information that was requested.
What the guidelines do, however, is make the secretary general and members of the management team of the Law Society responsible for ensuring that council members' requests for information are met.
This is, after all, where the buck should stop on all matters relating to the effective performance of the Law Society's staff.