The City of London Law Society (CLLS) has issued a stern warning to the Government in its response to the draft Legal Services Bill, calling the new legislation “potentially draconian”.
CLLS chair David McIntosh told The Lawyer: “Unless this bill is substantially rewritten, it will amount to an own-goal for the Government. As drawn, it undermines the independence of the legal profession by ensuring government control over the proposed Legal Services Board through the Secretary of State.” The CLLS’s written response to the joint Parliamentary committee scrutinising the bill comes on behalf of many of the City’s largest firms, including Linklaters, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Allen & Overy, Slaughter and May, Herbert Smith and Norton Rose.
Despite pleas from the committee’s chair Lord Hunt of Wirral in The Lawyer (12 June), few law firms submitted an independent response by the 15 June deadline.
As part of its response, the CLLS has called for an extension to the short consultation period given to the joint committee. The Government has asked Hunt and his 11 fellow committee members from both Houses of Parliament to produce a report by 25 July, just two months after the draft bill’s publication.
McIntosh said: “We are astonished, given the amount of time the Government has taken in producing the Bill, that there is less than two months for the Parliamentary committee to consider representations. There is even less time for those of us required to consider and comment on more than 300 pages, some of which are extremely woolly, and it is hard to dismiss the thought that the Government is seeking to steamroller this through for its own purposes.”
Eversheds chairman Alan Jenkins said the firm had decided not to make an individual response because the CLLS and the Law Society had already made the relevant points. He added: “The chances of persuading the Department for Constitutional Affairs or Lord Falconer now to make radical changes to the bill to eliminate alternative business structures or outside investment are minimal.”
The CLLS response was drawn up by a working party including partners from a number of firms. Freshfields’ Julian Francis called the Bill “badly drafted” and criticised the short consultation period.
“The committee has to do a rush report. What do you think will happen? We’ll have the same draft bill in October,” Francis said.
Clifford Chance is one of the few firms to have submitted its own response to the committee. The firm says there is not enough acknowledgement in the draft legislation that different law firms have different sorts of clients, ranging from ‘the man on the street’ to sophisticated businesses.
Clifford Chance is also fighting for appropriate safeguards for alternative business structures. Like the CLLS and Law Society, the firm wants to safeguard the independence of the profession.
McIntosh said the CLLS was prepared to fight hard for its point of view. “We’re hopeful the committee will influence in favour of our concerns,” he said. “If not, we will be ready to lobby during the passage of the bill through both Houses.” The joint committee will this week hear evidence from legal services reviewer Sir David Clementi and Bridget Prentice MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs.
It has already met with groups including the Law Society, the Bar Council, the Office of Fair Trading, and representatives of other legal professions, such as patent attorneys and conveyancers.