The legal aid battle at Chancery Lane

Law Society bosses feel the heat as profession demands more action against cuts

Solicitors normally treat their professional body with utter ambivalence. So when some 500 of them swarmed into the Law Society’s London headquarters
in Chancery Lane at the end of last year, something must have been up.

For the most part, they were jobbing criminal law specialists frothing at what they say has been a policy of appeasement adopted by the society’s leadership towards the Government’s proposed hacking of the legal aid budget. Lawyers on the ground – both solicitors and barristers – reckon the cuts will profoundly threaten core elements of the criminal justice system and that the Law Society has been negligent in its opposition.

So angered was James Parry – a partner at Liverpool-based Parry Welch Lacey Solicitors – that he rallied a petition for a vote of no confidence in the Chancery Lane leadership. And at a special general meeting (SGM) of the society on 17 December he won the day.

The Law Society has had its fair share of embarrassing moments in recent history but this is the first time in memory that the working profession has seemed this angry.

The vote was close – 228 to 213, with several curious abstentions – but observers pointed out that the society hierarchy had arranged the meeting at an inconvenient time for solicitors, especially those from the provinces, and many of whom would have had pre-arranged court dates conflicting.

Also, the leadership called an emergency meeting of the society’s ruling council to coincide with the SGM. That meant some 100 pliant council members were on hand to back the leadership – and there were also fears that up to 30 society staff eligible to vote would be strongly encouraged to support their bosses. 

Chancery Lane officials strongly rebuffed those suggestions by having the Electoral Reform Society on hand to supervise an anonymous ballot.

Despite the gerrymandering allegations, the society still took a nosedive, with grass-roots solicitors saying they have no confidence in the leadership. There were calls for the two top characters – president Nick Fluck and chief executive Des Hudson – to resign, but they resolutely refused, assuming a defiant, business-as-usual posture.

That stance seems unlikely to hold, as 2014 kicks off with direct action from criminal law solicitors and barristers. 

If Law Society leaders do not take a more aggressive approach with ministers they could find their members taking a more aggressive approach with them.