Law Society in crisis

The professional body for UK solicitors is losing the confidence of its members, reports Hannah Langworth

A vote on a motion of no confidence in the president and chief executive of the Law Society, the professional body for solicitors in England and Wales, has been scheduled for next month. While the motion has come out of one particular conflict, it's arguably exposed some longstanding problems with the regulatory and representative organisation.

Criminal act

A petition for the vote was brought by James Parry, a senior criminal lawyer and a figurehead for a wider group of criminal and other legal practitioners, in response to what he claims is a recent agreement between the government and the Law Society on proposed significant changes to government funding for criminal law work through legal aid.

The Ministry of Justice is proposing that the number of firms allowed to take on government-funded criminal law work should be reduced, and the fees paid to them should be cut significantly, by 17.5 per cent. Earlier this year, the Law Society held extensive discussions with the government on reform of this area of the profession, and stated on 6 September that these proposals are "the outcome of a period of detailed and constructive dialogue between the Ministry of Justice and the Law Society".

Parry claims that this apparent agreement, the details of which are still somewhat unclear, was entered into without a mandate from the society's members. In an open letter to Des Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, about his no confidence petition he states: "Whatever that agreement was those of us who are expected to abide by it were not consulted about it and did not endorse it."

Parry and his supporters claim that the proposals will force a large number of legal aid firms out of business, potentially leading to instability in the market for provision of publicly-funded criminal law services, and even the jeopardisation of the right under UK and international human rights law of those accused of a crime to a fair trial.

The Law Society claims, however, that resisting the changes more aggressively rather than co-operating with the government would have been counterproductive and would have led to even more severe cuts.

A vote on the no confidence motion will be held on 17 December. If the motion is passed, it could lead to the dismissal of the Law Society's leading figures.

Divide and fall

This dispute should be seen in the context of a wider debate about how effectively the Law Society serves its members.

Questions have long been asked about whether a single body can effectively represent all solicitors in the UK, from high street sole practitioners to solicitor advocates to finance lawyers in the City, and whether the diversity of its membership inevitably leads to policy conflicts like the current one.

The 2004 Clementi Review of the legal profession, broadly accepted by the government, proposed the establishment of a new single legal services regulator to oversee solicitors and barristers, which could see the Law Society lose funding and some of its powers.

If implemented, this proposal could free the way for regulation and representation of solicitors to shift to a number of smaller organisations under the new overall legal regulator.

In the wake of the current controversy, solicitors practising criminal law are likely to be tempted to align themselves even more closely with criminal barristers' organisations and strengthen existing criminal solicitors' networks, both of which have consistently opposed the government's recent criminal law-related legal aid proposals.

Meanwhile City firms might well choose to build up the existing City of London Law Society as a cheaper, more nimble, and more focused alternative to the Law Society.