Memo sparks Chancery Lane fury

MARTIN Mears has pledged to launch an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the circulation of a “deeply damaging” internal memo to the press by Chancery Lane staff.

The president's decision to hold a formal investigation confounds the desperate pleas by other Law Society leaders for Mears to call a halt to his public criticism of staff.

In a separate development, The Lawyer has learned that Law Society treasurer Mike Howells mounted an investigation into rumours circulating within Chancery Lane about the quantity of alcoholic drinks supplied to Mears' official residence in Carey Street.

In a letter to Mears, he acknowledged the president was the victim of “black propaganda” after discovering “there is no increase whatsoever”. Howell suggested informing senior staff that he was satisfied, despite “all rumours to the contrary”, that consumption of spirits had not risen.

At the council meeting on 25 January, Mears launched his most damaging attack yet on his staff when he accused them of disobeying instructions that an allegedly defamatory article should have been withheld from Chancery Lane's internal press cuttings service. The article in the Mail on Sunday criticised his stance on divorce.

The memo incident prompt-ed staff to take the remarkable step of handing out an internal memo to the press midway through the meeting in an effort to refute Mears' claims they were disobeying orders.

It detailed a phone call between Mears and head of public relations Sue Stapely in which she claimed he had not said the article was defamatory.

The memo added: “At the time you said (and I took a verbatim shorthand note of our conversation) that you very much hoped that the News of the World would defame you as you were 'very litigious' and would relish the opportunity to take proceedings.”

Mears disputes the version of events portrayed in the memo.

“The memo was deeply damaging to me and by association, the profession,” he said, adding that he would call a meeting of the three office holders and Howells in order to investigate the incident.

Deputy vice-president Tony Girling is among a group of senior council members who is desperately trying to negotiate a ceasefire. He stressed secretary general John Hayes had control over staff issues and said the circulation of the memo was predictable given Mears' decision to criticise staff publically.

He insisted common ground did exist between the presidency and the staff and council members. “I believe the president and vice-president's perception they are being blocked at every turn is flawed and they see bad faith behind every shadow,” said Girling.

The memo incident overshadowed a recognition by the council that any move to solve the problem of low conveyancing fees will have to be delayed by at least six months to a year.

The meeting heard that mandatory scale fees were dead following counsel's opinion from David Pannick QC.

But Sayer's plan to exclude cut-price conveyancers from the Solicitors' Indemnity Fund was still a possibility if the society could prove the link, claimed by Sayer, between low fees and shoddy work.