Mears squares up to 'old guard'

A CRUNCH vote this week on conveyancing threatens to blow apart any semblance of unity within the Law Society Council as it struggles to respond to the clamour for higher fees from the profession.

Law Society president Martin Mears says a motion to exclude cut-price conveyancers from the indemnity insurance scheme, to be put before the council on Thursday, is one of the most important ever.

The move to fight the slump in fees coincides with the release of the society's Annual Statistical Report which says fewer than half the firms doing conveyancing make a profit.

But Mears is anticipating opposition from senior members. “There is an enormous gap between some old guard members on the council and their constituents,” he said. “In my opinion council members who are at odds with their constituencies on important issues such as this should resign.”

Among senior council figures who expressed grave doubts on the plan are Richard Hegarty, chair of the property and services committee, and Andrew Kennedy, chair of the Solicitors Indemnity Fund.

Hegarty said he supported the initiative in principle but much more work needed to be done before any proposals could go out to consultation.

“There are so many questions left unanswered. We cannot be expected to support a paper when it has been so badly put together.”

Kennedy said: “We don't think there are good underwriting grounds for the proposals.”

The motion calls for the council to approve amendments to the SIF rules so that solicitors charging below published guideline fees would not generally be covered by the fund and would have to arrange alternative cover instead.

It wants a consultation paper along these lines endorsed in principle and circulated in time for changes to the indemnity rules to be implemented no later than March.

The plan has the support of the Conveyancing Fees Initiative led by John Edge, who claims more than 12,000 signatures of support.

Closed-circuit television has been rigged up at Chancery Lane to allow solicitors who have travelled to London to watch the debate if they cannot fit into the council chamber.

Two other major papers will also be considered by the council. One, on the job description for departing secretary general John Hayes' successor, proposes a more flexible contract and clearer lines of accountability to the Law Society Council.

It ties in with a paper on reform of the society by council member David Thomas and a motion for the 14 unelected specialist seats on the council to be subject to election.

John Malpas