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Fraying consensus – Law Society mired in controversy again as leadership loses legal aid confidence vote

The fall-out over the Government’s highly controversial legal aid reforms continues as the Law Society‘s leadership today (17 December) lost a high-stakes confidence vote on its divisive ‘direct engagement’ policy with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

The vote at the special general meeting (SGM) at Chancery Lane this morning saw a no confidence motion narrowly passed. The Law Society confirmed via twitter that the total votes equated to 228 for the motion, with 213 against. More than 500 attendees had descended on Chancery Lane this morning for the SGM.

The no-confidence motion was specifically targeted at the ability of current Law Society president Nicholas Fluck and chief executive Desmond Hudson to represent publicly funded solicitors in negotiations with the Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling on legal aid.

The vote was brought about after Liverpool-based criminal lawyer James Parry of Parry Welch Lacey Solicitors published an open letter to Hudson in late October informing him that he had acquired sufficient signatures to demand an SGM of the Law Society.

Chancery Lane’s stance of negotiating with the MoJ over drastic cuts to legal aid has angered criminal lawyers who wanted the body to maintain the tougher oppositional stance of other professional bodies like the Bar Council. The society argued that its engagement helped secure major concessions, including the scrapping of proposals to introduce price competitive tendering for legal aid work, a model that was expected to drive down rates aggressively.

This morning Hudson gave a speech declaring ‘we are confronted by a government – and a secretary of state for justice – who are committed to cuts – cuts at any price. It is they who are pursuing the cuts, not the Law Society’.

He further stated that the Law Society had set itself goals to maximise the greatest number of its members who could ‘sustainably practise criminal law’, to defeat cuts, to avoid ‘savage market contraction’, to obtain the longest period to enable its members to adapt, defeat price competitive tendering, and to ‘preserve client choice’.

Fluck also made attempts to appease the audience, stating: ‘We seem to have a government that wants to sweep away our industry: introducing liberalisation, non-lawyer competition, failing to recognise or value the difference we solicitors make day in, day out and we have a secretary of state for justice who isn’t a solicitor and doesn’t seem to understand what that means.

‘Because of the fight the Law Society has put up – and I can assure you it has been a fight – the secretary of state is now starting to understand why there is a real need for more criminal legal aid practitioners than he first thought. When I go and speak to the Lord Chancellor I am representing, and have the interests of the whole profession at heart – rather than any one particular group. He knows – and I know and you know – there is more to play for and more for the profession to gain.’

Chancery Lane has already indicated that it is unlikely to put the confidence point to a postal vote of the entire profession – which it would be highly likely to win – citing the cost. The Law Society spent nearly £120,000 on the SGM and has said that a postal vote would cost a further £200,000, though such claims have been questioned by its critics.

A Law Society spokesperson commented: ‘The Society lost today’s vote by a narrow margin of 228 to 213. We have listened to our criminal legal aid members. There are lessons to be learned and we will reflect on these developments.

‘Council will be considering the outcome today. Our immediate priority is to continue to influence the Ministry of Justice in our members’ interests. We will continue to make it very clear to the Lord Chancellor that we remain opposed to cuts.’

Whatever the final outcome, the incident will be damaging for the largest legal body in the UK at a sensitive time for the profession. The Law Society’s calculations must include the possibility that the regulatory settlement in the 2007 Legal Services Act will be further torn up, potentially weakening Chancery Lane’s position.

Whether any shift in stance will be enough to placate the increasingly vocal critics of the body is highly debatable, especially as some believe that the MoJ has become nervous of pursuing hard-line reforms in the face of unprecedented opposition from the profession. The last 15 years has also frequently seen the Law Society riven by factional disputes and struggling to represent an expanding and increasingly disparate profession.