Leaks lead to tougher Law Society secrecy regulations

Shaun Pye reports. The Law Society has drawn up new rules to strengthen secrecy, which could severely restrict its members' access to information.

In July the council will vote on whether to ban council members seeing confidential papers from any committee, bar those they sit on, except on a “need-to-know” basis.

Even when a councillor is a member of a committee, access to documents may be restricted.

The society is understood to be worried about the sources of a stream of embarrassing stories in The Lawyer, such as Tony Girling's attempt to introduce a version of the “Buggin's turn” system for electing Law Society presidents and the contents of counsel's advice on judicially reviewing legal aid reforms.

Andrew Leadbitter of Herbert Smith, who provided legal advice to the society on the minimum information members were entitled to, said: “A council member has no “roving commission' to trawl through documents simply because he is a council member, and mere curiosity is not sufficient.

“New members of the council may be denied access to information relating to decisions taken before they became members.”

One council member said that staff were eager to impose restrictions and wanted Leadbitter's advice incorporated to the letter. He said such restrictions would have prevented the truth about, for example, the cost of the Regis computer system coming to light.

But council member Philip Hamer said the moves could lead to more openness – because it would be down to the council to decide what information its members should have access to and it was far less inclined to lean towards secrecy than it had been in the past.

“We now have formal rules about what members are entitled to see. Ultimate authority on what constitutes a “good reason' for seeing documents will rest with the council.”

Council member Tony Bogan described the proposals as “outrageous”.

Dave McNeil, spokesman for the Law Society, said: “This has nothing to do with secrecy or stopping leaks. The general principle is that members have access to everything unless there is a good reason for them not to. All we have done is clarify the existing code.”