Law Society leadership in chaos as solicitors pass no-confidence vote

Pressure is mounting on key figures at the Law Society to resign after solicitors said today they had no confidence in the leadership’s position on government proposals to slash legal aid rates.

James Parry – the criminal law specialist partner who triggered a special general meeting – said the society’s president and chief executive “need to consider their positions” in the light of the no-confidence vote. 

Solicitors passed the motion by 228 to 213, and Parry said that if the existing leadership “can’t address its credibility problem and say it has got it wrong in the past” in relation to its approach to ministers, then it should stand down. 

To trigger a national postal vote, five local Law Society presidents or 100 members would have to demand it within the next 28 days.

Speaking to reporters after the vote, society chief executive Des Hudson said “once several immediate issues are dealt with on behalf of our members”, the leadership would consider the ramifications of the no-confidence vote. He said he would discuss with the society’s council – which went into emergency session after the vote – how it could “reconsider and rethink” its approach to the legal aid debate. 

An official society statement following the vote said: “There are lessons to be learned and we will reflect on these developments. [The] council will be considering the outcome today. Our immediate priority is to continue to influence the Ministry of Justice in our members’ interests. We will continue to make it very clear to the Lord Chancellor that we remain opposed to cuts.” 

The crisis at Chancery Lane was sparked by simmering anger among criminal law specialist solicitors at what they claim has been Law Society appeasement of the Ministry of Justice over Whitehall’s proposed fee rate cuts.The Lawyer revealed inNovember that members were gearing up for a confidence vote in the Law Society (4 November 2013).

At today’s meeting (17 December), a stream of speakers supported Liverpool-based Parry, slamming the society for cutting a deal allegedly without a mandate from specialist practitioners and for maintaining a “culture of secrecy” around its talks with government. 

Parry – from Parry Welch Lacey Solicitors – said the government’s proposals “threatened the very existence of the criminal justice system”. While he was saddened at having had to call the SGM, Parry said the Law Society needed to be jolted into taking a more aggressive and campaigning stance of opposition. 

Supporters of the society leadership pleaded with rank and file solicitors not to slap Chancery Lane publicly as it would cause Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling “to rub his hands in glee”. Society President Nick Fluck told the SGM: “Some may wish we had done it [campaigned] more publicly, but from the start we’ve been there talking to the government, persuading them why they are wrong.” 

Hudson claimed the Law Society had a mandate to talk to the government “under the rules of the society”. He told solicitors at the meeting: “You may say you don’t like those rules, that you want to change the rules of the society about how a mandate is formed, but as fellow lawyers, we all know that under our constitution there was a mandate.” 

However, those pleas failed to win the day as no Law Society-affiliated criminal law solicitor spoke against the motion. Those backing the society were all from its 100-strong council in addition to a smattering of City law firm representatives. 

The latter claimed the no-confidence vote would send a message to ministers that the solicitors’ profession was divided and therefore encourage the government to press ahead with its reforms. But those backing the motion countered, saying it was the Chancery Lane leadership that was causing disunity by failing accurately to represent the wishes of criminal practitioners. 

Hudson responded with suggestions that criminal specialists themselves were divided, with those in the Big Firms Group – practices that earn most from the annual criminal legal aid budget – more minded to negotiate with the government in a bid to see consolidation and greater efficiency in the market. 

Hudson maintained that while the society leadership considered there was a strong chance today’s result would not be repeated in a profession-wide ballot, he ruled out Chancery Lane itself calling for an electronic postal vote. 

He said the society had already spent £120,000 organising the SGM and that a profession-wide vote would boost that to £200,000. “We can’t operate on the basis of continuing plebiscites,” he said. 

Supporters of the motion called on criminal law solicitors to back barristers in their half-day of action on 6 January. The Criminal Bar Association is pushing for its members not to attend at court on that day.