Law Society chiefs face confidence vote over “abject surrender” in legal aid battle

Solicitors have called for a no confidence vote in the Law Society’s senior team, accusing Chancery Lane of “appeasement and abject surrender” over government proposals to slash legal aid rates.

A senior Liverpool-based criminal law specialist is to submit a petition on Monday calling for an extraordinary general meeting of the society at which there will be a vote of no confidence in the representative body’s president and chief executive. 

In an open letter to chief executive Des Hudson last week, James Parry of Parry Welch Lacey said the confidence motion aimed “to bring the executive of the Law Society to account. It’s not right in a democratic society that a representative body should enter into agreements without a mandate from its members and such behaviour must cease”. 

The EGM petition – which also targets society president Nick Fluck – coincides with the end of the government’s second consultation on proposals for reducing the legal aid budget. The issue has united in outright opposition various bodies such as the Bar Council, the Legal Aid Practitioners, the Criminal Bar Association and the Criminal Law Solicitors Association. 

But critics of Chancery Lane have claimed the society is out of step and has tip-toed around the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) by essentially backing what the society described as a negotiated deal with Secretary of State Chris Grayling over the cuts. 

At the beginning of September, Grayling announced a concession following discussions with the Law Society meaning that the proposed 17.5 per cent cut in legal aid rates would be phased over two stages – 8.75 per cent coming next February and the remainder hitting when new contracts are doled out in May 2015. The government had earlier ditched plans to introduce price-competitive tendering for legal aid contracts. 

But legal aid practitioners have dismissed the concession as window dressing. “The Law Society has cloaked Grayling with a veneer of respectability,” Parry told The Lawyer. He pointed out that the government was under no obligation to do anything more than consult with Chancery Lane and that the society had nothing to lose by adopting a more robust stance in opposition. 

“The Law Society claims this is the best deal we can get,” said Parry. “And that they have supported it to prevent the government imposing something worse. But I can’t imagine anything worse than what is being proposed, either for the profession or for the country.” 

He estimated that even under the revised deal, up to two-thirds of legal aid law firms would go out of business. 

In his open letter to Hudson, Parry says the confidence vote is designed “to encourage the Law Society to engage in a hearts and minds campaign to make the political and economic case against what is proposed. If the current incumbents are unable or unwilling to do that, they should step aside in favour of those who are prepared to do so …” 

Under its constitution, the Law Society will have a fortnight from the day it receives the petition on Monday to set and advertise an EGM date. The meeting must be held within 72 days of announcement. 

If the no confidence motion is passed at the EGM, the vote would then go to a postal ballot of the entire profession. The Law Society said neither Nick Fluck nor Des Hudson was available for comment today and that it would respond once the EGM petition was filed on Monday.