Shakes, battles and polls
6 October 1997
The year opened with Durnford Ford going to trial to defend himself against Serious Fraud Office (SFO) allegations of stealing £8.5m from his clients, which included the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. Eight equity partners were later declared bankrupt.
With the moves by the US firms to expand, Lovell White Durrant fought back for the City and poached two leading insurance lawyers from Sidley & Austin in Chicago to create a Chicago office for Lovells.
Also in the US, there were attempts to extradite Simmons & Simmons partner David Sandy to New York as part of the notorious BCCI litigation (the case was struck out in 1996).
In early spring, the Government made a U-turn on courts privatisation, and the future of the Solicitors Complaints Bureau was under review.
April saw the first Woman Lawyer Conference, and the first woman head in the top 10 firms was appointed in the form of Lesley MacDonagh, who became joint managing partner of Lovell White Durrant. One fallout from the conference was Eileen Pembridge raising questions about harassment at the Law Society, and the then vice president John Young stood down as a presidential candidate. There was also the first contested presidential election with Pembridge, Martin Mears and Henry Hodge.
The Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) pressed ahead with a graduated fees scheme for barristers carrying out legal aid work, and solicitor advocates were denied the right to wear wigs in the higher courts, but were given the go-ahead to apply for silk.
Conditional fees were given the all clear despite Aclec (Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct) chair Lord Steyn raising concerns about a proposed 100 per cent increase in fees, the lack of a limit on the proportion of damages payable towards fees, insurance, and arrangements between solicitors and barristers which might be ultra vires.
There was a sharp decline in the numbers of applications for silk - 492 compared to 539 the previous year. Eight women were awarded silk, including Cherie Booth.
The Internet was seen as triggering a boom for libel lawyers, while Nick Leeson and the Barings collapse signalled a surge in business for commercial lawyers. And the Maxwell trial drew on the white collar crime specialists.
Lord Woolf published his report on Access to Justice, which introduced fast track and multitrack cases, and case management by judges. The profession welcomed most of the proposals, but wondered how they would work in practice.
This year saw the introduction of the Lawyer/Hifal awards: Lord Woolf won Legal Personality of the Year, Doughty Street Chambers took Chambers of the Year, and Eversheds scooped Law Firm of the Year - and The Lawyer was awarded a new editor in June as Mary Heaney took the helm.
A global moratorium on the Lloyd's action group hearings was being mooted in the light of a £2.8bn settlement offer.
Sir Nicholas Lyell QC was the first Attorney General to face a judicial review (on the Taylor sisters case), while Home Secretary Michael Howard was attacked over his plans for tougher sentences by the late Lord Chief Justice Lord Taylor. This won the support of other judges and the profession as a whole, continuing an era in which senior judges, including former Master of the Rolls Lord Donaldson, repeatedly came into conflict with the Executive.
The SFO was put under parliamentary scrutiny following the Roger Levitt case, the Government faced opposition from lawyers to its Criminal Injuries Compensation Bill, and litigants in person, Verity and Spindler, took action against Lloyds Bank and gave lawyers and lenders food for thought.
The Gibraltar Three case also brought the issue of a bill of rights for the UK back into the headlines, which had been overflowing with the OJ Simpson US criminal trial and the Rosemary West trial. The Pach system (Pupillage Applications Clearing House) was also finalised.
Back on the mergers front Eversheds joined with Jacques & Lewis; Pinsent & Co merged with Simpson Curtis; and Turner Kenneth Brown was in talks with Nabarro Nathanson. Withers merged with Mackenzie Mills, Nicholson Graham & Jones with Brecher & Co, Radcliffes Crossman Block was created and Wright Webb Syrett broke up - with its files later being found in a skip outside its former offices. There were further moves to US firms with Stephenson Harwood losing litigation partner Margaret Cole to White & Case. Later in the year, the news was less than rosy, with New York firm Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander & Ferdon's dissolution in October.
The Lawyer poll revealed that one in five solicitors believed that the chances of miscarriages of justice would increase greatly with the abolition of the unconditional right to silence. Later in the year, another Lawyer survey found that more than 90 per cent of Magistrates Courts Committees were under financial pressure, with nearly all pursuing cost-cutting measures, 38 per cent substantially.
The Bar Council faced rebellion against proposed reform of its complaints system, while at the Law Society, Secretary General John Hayes resigned.
The Private Finance initiative hit the legal profession with the LCD, Courts Service and the county courts staff striking over a £60m IT privatisation plan.
Lord Mackay pressed on with his law reform shake ups with his White Paper on divorce. Later, he dismissed the Law Society's legal aid revamp ideas and called for "a more imaginative response" to his Green Paper proposals. Undaunted by the opposition, he planned the publishing of his White Paper on Legal Aid in the spring.
Bournemouth solicitor John Edge, who was behind a grass roots campaign to put a stop to cut-price conveyancing, became the subject of an individual voluntary arrangement, but this did not stop him in his campaign. In Scotland, solicitors questioned the decision of the Scottish Office on its proposals to end the profession's exclusive control over conveyancing work. For both systems in the UK, the lines were being drawn for the fight for conveyancing.