Beleaguered Law Society officials are braced for up to 1,000 angry criminal legal aid solicitors to swamp a special meeting in less than a fortnight’s time as the row over Chancery Lane’s leadership peaks.
Proponents of a motion of no confidence in the society’s president and chief executive have organised coach convoys from at least four provincial centres to deliver a stark message to the leadership at a special general meeting (SGM) later this month: oppose more robustly Government proposals to slash criminal legal aid rates, or resign.
Against the backdrop of the SGM, the profession’s regulator announced that next year it will research the impact of legal aid rate cuts on the financial viability of crime specialist solicitors’ firms.
The society has confirmed it is preparing to accommodate slightly more than 1,000 solicitors at the SGM. It has asked lawyers to notify Chancery Lane of their attendance by 12 December. By Friday afternoon (6 December) 350 lawyers had said they would attend.
Emotions are running high as the vote looms, with James Parry, the solicitor behind the no confidence motion, claiming the Law Society hierarchy is pressing him directly and indirectly – through representatives from criminal legal aid specialist lawyer groups – to drop the challenge.
But he says he has no intention of bowing to the pressure.
“I’ve received significant support from grassroots solicitors since calling for the vote of no confidence,” he told The Lawyer, “and the only way I would consider dropping the motion is if the society acknowledged that it had entered into discussions with the Ministry of Justice without a mandate from the profession and it agreed to change its policy regarding the proposed reforms.”
Parry – a partner at Liverpool-based Parry Welch Lacey – said he anticipates strong support for the motion at the special general meeting on 17 December at the Law Society’s London headquarters. In addition to coachloads of solicitors travelling to the capital, Parry anticipates many London solicitors will also attend to back the no confidence motion.
He claimed that, ironically, an e-mail sent by society president Nick Fluck to criminal law specialist firm senior partners has actually motivated many to give their associate staff a day of paid leave to attend the meeting and back the motion.
Society chief executive Des Hudson has declined to release details of how the vote will be conducted. Concerns have been raised that qualified Law Society staff might feel pressured to back the leadership if the vote is not held through a secret ballot.
Meanwhile, the Solicitors Regulation Authority said it will conduct a research project on how law firms are managing the risks of the legal aid cuts. Mike Haley, the authority’s director of supervision, explained that “in our financial information gathering, as part of the financial stability programme, we asked 500 firms with over 50 per cent reliance on legal aid about their current financial health.”
He pointed out that as “the exact nature of the changes to be made by the MoJ are not yet settled it is too early to say what the impact will be”.
In a statement last week the Law Society reiterated its opposition to the Government’s proposed cuts, pointing out that criminal law practitioners were not unanimous in their approach. Chancery Lane officials also denied they were in cahoots with the larger crime firms to agree a programme of consolidation with ministers.
“The Government made it clear with price competitive tendering that they wanted to deal with the smallest number of firms in big contracts at the minimum price,” said the society. “There are among the leaders of big firms some who would prefer that too. The society secured a concession from Government, which means that the maximum number of firms, subject to economic viability, should be able to compete. That’s against the interests of big firms, but in the interest in the majority of criminal practitioners.”