Council blows fees issue wide open

A CLASSIC Law Society compromise has thrown open the entire conveyancing debate once again – and could even lead to the establishment of compulsory quality standards for conveyancers.

The society's council heaved a collective sigh of relief after its meeting last Thursday.

A damaging split on the method of solving the conveyancing fees crisis was averted when society president Martin Mears climbed down over a motion he had earlier described as one of the most important ever.

Mears and his deputy Robert Sayer had insisted that the council accept in principle their plan to exclude cut-price conveyancers from the indemnity insurance scheme. Instead the council unanimously agreed to consult the profession with alternative suggestions for the way forward, and not only in relation to the indemnity plan.

Included in the consultation paper, likely to be issued at the end of January for a final decision in March, will be a plan to introduce “mandatory conveyancing quality standards in return for the establishment of a reasonable level of mandatory minimum fees”.

Mears acknowledged the motion was “less strong” than his own, but said it was important that the society was not split over the issue.

“That would be entirely the wrong message to give to the Master of the Rolls.”

Richard Hegarty, chair of the council's property and services committee which will play a key role in drawing up the paper, described the motion as a “wonderful Christmas present”.

Conveyancing campaigner John Edge also lent his support to the move.

The compromise can be largely explained by intervention on the part of Master of the Rolls, Sir Thomas Bingham, who has to approve any change in indemnity rules.

In a letter circulated to the council, Bingham stressed a change needed to be in the public interest while the fund “may not be used to achieve ends which do not concern the provision of indemnity”.

Referring to competition in relation to any new rule, he said he would be “greatly reassured by a convincing and favourable opinion from experienced leading counsel”.

His letter provided ammunition for opponents to the indemnity plan, including Henry Hodge, an arch Mears critic, who said it was cruelly raising the profession's hopes.