If criminal law practitioners, incensed by the Law Society’s pliancy to legal aid cuts, pass a motion of no confidence, they will open the way for more regulatory change
It is not difficult to see why the top bureaucrat at the solicitors’ professional body has become a bête noire for so many at the publicly funded end of practice. Law Society chief executive Des Hudson’s annual salary of £340,000 plus bonuses and pension contributions could pay for about 15 legal aid practitioners – and that’s by Chancery Lane’s own reckoning of the average annual wage in that sector.
So when the society appears to be compliant – if not exactly complicit – with Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s plans to slash existing criminal law legal aid rates, outrage was always likely to well up.
And well up it has – in bucket loads, and most recently manifested in the form of a petition lodged at the society’s headquarters last week triggering a special general meeting to vote on a motion of no confidence. The motion – drafted by Liverpool-based partner James Parry of Parry Welch Lacey – targets not only Hudson’s leadership but that of the titular head of the organisation, president Nick Fluck.
The SGM must be held before the first week of January and if the motion wins the day – which is distinctly possible – it is likely to be put to the wider profession in a postal ballot. That too could romp home as the keenest solicitors to vote will probably be those most aggrieved by perceived or real Law Society failings.
From there it is not a huge leap to envisage the demise of the Law Society in its current structure, with City lawyers – or at least the finance directors of the leading global firms – potentially wryly chuckling at the prospect.
Crashing and burning on a profession-wide confidence vote could easily force the senior team to consider their positions. And high profile resignations might encourage the Government to listen to voices – not least coming from the Legal Services Board – backing further regulatory evolution of the profession.
Proposals for a single regulator, if implemented, are likely to result in the Law Society waving goodbye to its annual subsidy from the practising certificate fee – currently enshrined in section 51 of the Legal Services Act 2007 – with ministers telling those solicitors wanting a representative body to pay a separate membership tariff for the privilege. Even conservative estimates suggest that no more than half of practitioners would cough up, and unless the society were able to convince City practices that corporate membership was attractive, the end of Chancery Lane could be nigh.
The reason City firms might not shed many tears at the prospect is that currently the Law Society gobbles up 27 per cent of the PC fee. Slashing that element of the cost of practice by more than a quarter could be hugely attractive – especially as many large firms take the view that the cheaper and more focused City of London Law Society already better caters to their representational needs.
But back to the criminal legal aid debate. Having run what many view as a mealy-mouthed campaign – with Hudson described as a Judas by some – Chancery Lane has incensed specialist practitioners with a statement at the end of last month in which Fluck appeared to stamp his approval on the Government’s proposals. “We are confident,” he said, “that, with some modifications, the Ministry of Justice’s proposals can ensure that anyone accused of a crime and unable to meet the costs of legal representation has access to a high-quality defence
solicitor of their choosing.”
Comments one leading criminal law solicitor: “If nothing else, that was an example of appalling drafting. If you are really opposed to the proposals, you don’t start a statement by saying all that is needed is a few modifications. It’s not fighting talk – and it looks like incompetence.”
Says another senior lawyer: “Solicitors reacted to that by thinking Grayling would raise a glass of champagne and say ‘now I’ve got them’. People are apoplectic about that.”
Last week the society scrambled to recover the position by inviting leaders of the criminal law fraternity to a previously-arranged meeting with the Lord Chancellor at Chancery Lane for this Wednesday (13 November). Whether that is enough to convince the shock troops that the society is being inclusive and seeking a mandate is debatable.
“The general perception of criminal law solicitors is that the Law Society has been overly accommodating of the Government,” says Bill Waddington, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association. “Many of the rank and file are absolutely fuming.”
Hudson and Fluck will be hoping they become distinctly less fumed by the time of the SGM. Hudson says he won’t rise to the bait of “gratuitously offensive language”.
Instead, says the chief executive, he is focusing on three core points: “That we do our job on behalf of very hard pressed members well and as effectively as we can; that we act in an entirely proper way in dealing with our governance obligations; and that we try to get the right outcome.”
He defines the right outcome as convincing the Government to abandon the cuts, accept the risks involved in imposing flat fees for guilty pleas and trials, and amend proposals for standard flat-rate fees for police station work.
A tall order, but one he and Chancery Lane might have to meet if Hudson and Fluck are to stay in their roles – and even if the Law Society is to survive.