Criminal law solicitors have called on the Law Society to hold a secret ballot for a forthcoming no-confidence vote in its leadership, amid concern that Chancery Lane staff could be pressured to vote to reject the motion.
The society confirmed that some 30 employees were qualified solicitors and eligible to vote at the special general meeting scheduled for 17 December. The no-confidence motion – proposed by Liverpool-based partner James Parry – calls for the current leadership either to change its approach to government proposals to reform criminal legal aid, or to resign.
“There should definitely be a secret ballot,” Parry told The Lawyer. “Otherwise Law Society employees will be under considerable pressure to back the leadership.”
Chancery Lane confirmed that all those on the roll of solicitors are entitled to vote at the SGM, including staff and council members. Officials hastily organised an unscheduled council meeting for the day of the SGM, and the Lawyer understands that solicitor staff members have been encouraged to attend and vote.
A society spokesman said those eligible “have been reassured that they are free to vote as they choose. They have been put under no pressure, subliminal or otherwise, nor will they be.”
He also maintained that society president Nick Fluck and chief executive Des Hudson – both of whom are named in the no-confidence motion – were not conflicted and were entitled to vote.
Nonetheless, criminal law specialist practitioners accused the society of a raft of unfair tactics over the meeting. Parry described the approach as one of “dirty tricks”, highlighting continuing concern at the early morning scheduling – the SGM will kick off at 10.30am – which could conflict with existing court hearings. The start time will also force financially hard-pressed lawyers to incur overnight expenses or travel to the capital during the peak rail fare period.
Chancery Lane officials also pointed to the cost of the meeting. They claim the total bill could be around £45,000 for the SGM and the additional council meeting, with additional costs incurred if a ballot of the entire profession is called. That postal vote can be demanded regardless of the SGM result, provided it is backed by 20 Law Society members present, or 25 per cent of those present, whichever is fewer.
Against the backdrop of those logistical issues, supporters of the no-confidence motion remain confident of victory and also claim that Chancery Lane officials are highly agitated by the prospect of losing the vote. Hudson has said he would have to consider his position if he lost the confidence motion.
But there is by no means unanimity among the criminal law fraternity. Some members of the Big Firms Group – formally the Association of Major Criminal Firms, which consists of 37 practices that each take a minimum of £1.5m annually from the legal aid fund – oppose the no-confidence motion.
“Des Hudson is a very astute leader and he has a very difficult job,” said Franklin Sinclair, senior partner of Big Firms Group founding practice, Manchester and London-Based Tuckers. “But what the Law Society has tried to do is to be all things to all men. When you do that you don’t please anybody.
“My position is that I don’t want my future to be in the hands of the Law Society. That’s not to say they haven’t done a relatively good job, because they have. But I’d still rather have my future in my own hands. So I prefer having discussions directly between the Big Firms Group and the Ministry of Justice, rather than having the Law Society do it for me.”
Some Big Firm Group members take a harsh line on the future of criminal legal aid practice. “The smaller firms are headstrong, with their heads in the sand,” commented Anthony Edwards, senior partner of London firm TV Edwards. “Come what may, the government will make cuts. That is a reality that the Big Firms Group recognises. And the only way the criminal justice system can survive with cuts – because we’ve been cut so much already – is if you consolidate the market. The market is currently incredibly inefficient.”
Edwards maintained that the number of firms doing criminal legal aid work should be slashed from its current level of between 1,500 to 1,800 to about 300.