Unity is the only way to take on the Government – and win

Martin Bowley QC calls for reform of the way the profession picks its leaders to strengthen it against attacks by the Government

Facing a government and a Lord Chancellor apparently determined to abolish everything legal – from legal aid to the circuit system, pausing only to inflict fatal damage on the independent Bar on the way – the quality of leadership of both branches of the profession assumes even greater importance.

An integral part of getting the right leaders is getting the way in which they are elected right. And currently neither the Bar Council nor the Law Society has got it right.

At least the Law Society has provision for a fully democratic election, and if it is good enough for solicitors – and for all the major political parties – what are the leaders of the Bar frightened of? A motion in favour of an electoral system was passed as long ago as the 1985 Bar AGM, attended by more than 1,200 people.

Elections are essentially healthy and a Bar Council chairman elected by the whole profession would have a mandate and an authority which no one elected by the dubious electoral college of the 110-odd members of the Bar Council could ever achieve.

And surely no one could support the current system unless every member of that electoral college was in turn democratically elected and the council adequately represented women and ethnic minorities.

Of course, there must be safeguards against the maverick and the inexperienced populist. At present neither the Law Society council nor the Bar Council requires candidates to have more than membership of their respective council at the time of the election, and the support of a proposer and seconder. In the case of the Law Society, the proposer and the seconder do not even have to be members of the council.

As the issues facing the professions become more and more complex, and the threats become increasingly profound, it is crucial that all candidates should have recent experience of those issues and threats, and personal knowledge of the people whom they will be facing across the negotiating table. As a safeguard, I propose that candidates should have three years' membership of the relevant council and the support of 10 per cent of that council. There is nothing magic in these figures. The principle is what matters.

The final safeguard would be in the timing of the election. At present a solicitor can walk into the presidential flat in Carey Street within days of the election. A barrister can be elected chairman of his profession less than nine months after joining the Bar Council. In both cases the effective election should be for the posts of vice-president and vice-chairman, respectively. That would ensure that presidents and chairmen in waiting would have a minimum of a year, and ideally up to 18 months, to work on their agendas and prepare their teams before assuming office.

Subject to a vote of no-confidence supported, perhaps, by a majority of the council, vice-presidents and vice-chairmen would then automatically move on to the top job.

With the support of their respective councils and their profession, and experience on their council and in high office, they would surely be better placed to present an authoritative – and united front – against the government on behalf of the legal profession and the public.