Law Society accused of rigging confidence vote

Campaigners for a change of Law Society leadership have lambasted the solicitors’ representation body for “trying to bury bad news” in its handling of a no confidence vote.

The society announced via Twitter yesterday that the petition would be heard at a special general meeting on 17 December at its London headquarters in Chancery Lane. 

But solicitors behind the campaign – which slates the society for “appeasement and abject surrender” over government proposals to slash criminal law legal aid rates – lashed out at a “cynical ploy to rig” the vote. The society has hastily called an additional meeting of its nearly 100-strong ruling council for that date, in a move solicitors suggest is designed to pack the SGM with support for the existing leadership. 

“I shouldn’t be at all surprised if that is the intention,” said James Parry, the senior criminal law practitioner behind the no confidence vote. Parry, a partner at Liverpool-based firm Parry Welch Lacey, described as “very poor” the society’s approach to the motion, and he was especially critical of the 10.30am time of the SGM. 

He pointed out that solicitors coming from outside London would either have to incur over-night accommodation costs or travel to the capital during the peak rail fare period. There was also concern that criminal trials normally start at 10am and therefore many of the solicitors wanting to participate in the vote will have conflicting court hearings. 

“A cynic might suggest that the society has done as much as possible to restrict access to this meeting, and it is doing as much as it can to bury bad news,” maintained Parry. 

A Chancery Lane spokesman confirmed that the council meeting had been added to coincide with the SGM. He said it was necessary for the society’s ruling body to be able to react quickly to the result of the vote, as “there is still plenty to play for in talks with the Lord Chancellor” over the legal aid debate. 

He denied the organisation’s leaders were attempting to gerrymander the vote, saying “there are 160,000 members of the Law Society, and if this motion is to be taken seriously, then the council needs to be able to react quickly”. 

The spokesman went on to say the society “absolutely rejects the suggestion that the SGM is being scheduled to favour some views over others”. He said “careful consideration was given to the timing of the meeting, including checking timetables to ensure that rail travel is feasible from major conurbations. It is highly uncertain how long the meeting will take, so to begin it late in the day would incur the risk that some members might have to leave before casting their votes. 

“The SGM meeting has been called at the earliest possible date, consistent with the society’s constitution.” 

At the meeting, solicitors will vote on a resolution saying: “The meeting has no confidence in the ability of Nicholas Fluck, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, and Desmond Hudson, Chief Executive of the Law Society of England and Wales, to properly and effectively represent those members of the society who undertake publicly funded legal aid work in negotiations with the Lord Chancellor as to the future and extent of criminal legal aid in England and Wales on the grounds that they purported to enter into an agreement with the Lord Chancellor without a mandate from those members of the society who practise publicly funded criminal law and in circumstances where the purported agreement was to the detriment of and against the will of those members and to the maintenance of a sustainable legal aid service to those subject to criminal proceedings.” 

As to the implications if the no confidence vote passes, the Law Society spokesman pointed out that the vote – even if put to a postal ballot of the entire profession – is not binding. “The responsibility for responding to the SGM, and for any decisions which are required, lies purely with council,” he said. 

The no confidence vote will be held on Tuesday, 17 December 2013, at 10.30am at Law Society Hall, 113 Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1PL. Society officials said notice of proposed amendments to the resolution must be submitted no later than 10.30am on the previous day.