A profession-wide vote of no confidence in the leadership of the Law Society would force the organisation’s top bureaucrat to consider his position, the chief executive acknowledged to The Lawyer today in an exclusive interview.
Chancery Lane’s hierarchy faces intense pressure from criminal law specialist solicitors, who claim the society has failed to represent their interests in talks with the government over proposed legal aid pay cuts. Earlier this week, a Liverpool law firm partner triggered a special general meeting to consider a no confidence motion.
A date for that meeting has yet to be set, but it is likely to fall before the end of the year. If the motion passed at the meeting, there is a strong chance a confidence vote would be put to the entire solicitors’ profession through a postal ballot.
“If and/or when the circumstances of a profession-wide vote of no confidence arises, then I’ll have to give that some thought,” said Des Hudson today.
However, he went on to respond bullishly to a volley of criticism in which he has been painted as a “Judas” to criminal law practitioners, and the society’s stance described as “active appeasement and abject surrender”.
Said Hudson: “I’m focusing at the moment on the fact that we still have negotiations and consultation with the Ministry of Justice. The issues are so gravely important for hundreds of firms and many hundreds of members – and for the working of the criminal justice system – that we are looking at what we can do to secure changes.”
The chief executive – who qualified as a solicitor in 1980 and before moving to Chancery Lane did stints at Scottish Media Group and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland – attempted to empathise with the criminal law fraternity. “When I first started I practised criminal law. I still have friends and colleagues from then, and I know how difficult it is. I understand that if a solicitor has spent 25 years building a practice and investing heart and soul in that practice – and then somebody comes along and says I’m going to change all the rules and that may well lead to the demise of your practice – then you are going to be angry and very hurt and concerned.
“I also know that many people are almost pursuing a vocation as much as they are involved in a running a business. People could earn more money not doing criminal legal aid. So I understand the sense of outrage that they feel.”
Hudson described the society’s current strategy as focusing on three points with ministers. Chancery Lane wants the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, to abandon the proposed rate cuts, to modify proposals for flat fees for guilty pleas and trials, and to reassess proposed standard flat rate fees for police station work.
He accepted points raised by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association that the cuts would hit solicitors in greater London especially hard. The LCCSA estimates practitioners in the capital are staring at rate cuts of between 30-35 per cent, compared to a national average of 17.5 per cent.
“I have raised this point directly with the Lord Chancellor and his team.,” said Hudson. “We’ve provided detailed geographical breakdowns of what we believe to be an entirely disproportionate settlement.”
The society is especially sensitive to criticisms that it has entered talks with the MoJ without having a mandate from specialist practitioner groups. Hudson maintains that decisions taken to enter talks and arrangements with ministers were taken by the appropriate Law Society board and ultimately its council. “The idea that we don’t have a mandate is wrong,” he insists. “Do we have a mandate from the specific practitioner groups? No. But we never sought one from them. This is about operating in accordance with the society’s governance structures, which we have done.”
Some suggest that a Law Society-organised meeting announced two days ago for 13 November – which will pit the heads of specialist groups against Chris Grayling – reflects Chancery Lane’s anxiety at being seen to be inclusive.
Nonetheless, Hudson strongly defended Chancery Lane’s strategy of diplomacy with the government. “The reason we need to have a constructive working relationship with the MoJ,” he said, “is to influence government in the interests of our members and in the interests of the justice system.” He pointed out that the society was involved in a range of controversial issues, including intervening in a court challenge to the proposed quality assurance scheme for advocates (QASA).
“Are people suggesting that I might not have done that because I wouldn’t want to upset the Lord Chief Justice or we don’t want to upset the MoJ and the Legal Aid Agency? We all know that those bodies have been very supportive of QASA. I could choose to have a relationship with government where I simply transmit the view of our most strident members by megaphone. Or I can try to advance the interests of members through our relationship with government. Those two points are sometimes different.”
The chief executive went on to defend the society against suggestions from legal aid practitioners that both he and it are not providing value relative to their expense. It is often pointed out that Hudson’s overall annual pay package of more than £340,000 equates to the combined average pay of about 15 legal aid lawyers.
“We are absolutely providing value for money,” he responded, pointing to Chancery Lane submissions this week on whistle-blowing and intervention in the High Court ruling yesterday on the right of terror suspects to consult a solicitor in person.
Regarding his own position, Hudson said: “If the Law Society thinks I’m not delivering value for money, then they should do something about that.”
Hudson described the constitutional mechanics allowing a Law Society SGM to be forced on the back of a petition requiring only 100 solicitor signatories as being “unfortunate”. But any move towards constitutional change, he said, required approval of solicitors at Chancery Lane’s annual general meeting.