Mathews offers LGG bittersweet symphony. Michael Mathews' speech at the Local Government Group conference was both reassuring and disturbing for members, writes Chris Fogarty

Before Law Society vice-president Michael Mathews stood up to make his after-dinner speech, his audience at the Local Government Group (LGG) conference had been anxious over the society's plans for local government lawyers.

But by the time he sat down, they were seething with anger.

The audience had been expecting Mathews to address fears that the LGG may be axed as part of the society's plans to divide solicitors into new “sections”, reflecting the type of law they practise.

They also hoped he would address another related grievance the society's decision to bypass the LGG by publicly inviting local government lawyers to nominate themselves for a special seat on the Law Society's ruling council reserved for the sector.

Up until now, the society has accepted the LGG's nomination for the seat.

But instead of reassuring the gathering at Warwick University earlier this month, Mathews went on the offensive.

He denied the LGG would be abolished, but described the old system for nominating local government representatives to sit on the council as unacceptable. He went on to criticise outgoing LGG president Peter Pilgrem, and the group he represents, for misunderstanding the issues.

Senior LGG members hit back labelling Mathews speech “patronising to the extreme” and “like being told off by the headmaster”. Even Pilgrem, for whom the phrase mild-mannered was invented, was upset.

He now accepts that the LGG is unlikely to be abolished, but complains: “We haven't actually been consulted yet. I have been told three different things by three different people, including the vice-president.”

He is also determined to fight to retain the LGG's right to choose who fills the reserved seat on the council.

He said: “What I can't understand is how the Law Society's nominations committee can tell if someone has the respect of local government lawyers if they don't know them.”

But in a concession to Chancery Lane, Pilgrem says that the LGG will consider holding an election among members for their nominee in place of the current system which bears all the hallmarks of a classic “buggins turn” agreement.

Behind Pilgrem's concerns is a wider feeling among local government solicitors that they are simply not being listened to by the Law Society.

Mathews was talking to an audience that has gone through just as much change as the private sector, if not more.

The previous government's policy of compulsory competitive tendering left many council solicitors feeling insecure about whether their jobs would be lost to the private sector.

Now CCT has been replaced by Labour's ambiguous Best Value policy, which is described by Warwickshire County Council chief executive Ian Caulfield as “a general presumption that (council) services should be exposed to competition”.

Meanwhile, the relationship between council officers and councillors, as to who is responsible for what, has been severely strained by recent scandals at Westminster and Doncaster councils.

Incoming LGG president Bethan Evans is expecting a white paper to be published in April on the ethical framework, dealing with relations between councillors and council officers.

One solicitor attending the Warwick conference said local government lawyers often felt like pawns on an ever-changing chess board of government policy.

And the reaction to Mathews' speech at the Law Society suggests this feeling of impotency extends to the relationship between local government solicitors and the Law Society. They say key decisions are being made about their future behind their backs.

Despite Chancery Lane talking long and hard about improving communication within the profession, the message, it seems, is still not getting through.