The Law Society, if nothing else, is a decent host and members attending the special general meeting (SGM) on Tuesday (17 December) were treated to KitKats among the refreshments on offer. Appropriately enough they were the two-finger variety, which is certainly the gesture some see the vote of no-confidence in president Nick Fluck and chief executive Des Hudson to be.
But for all the headlines of chaos at Chancery Lane and supposed pressure on the pair to resign, I believe the reality is that the SGM vote will have negligible impact, at least in the foreseeable future. The unexpectedly narrow margin by which the motion passed has helped the ruling council essentially ignore the vote.
A spokeswoman confirmed that neither man will be standing down – the post-SGM council meeting expressed its confidence in them, she said – and that the council will continue its controversial policy of engagement with the Ministry of Justice.
Of course, the vote was effectively one of no-confidence in the council itself, as it provided the much talked-about mandate for the negotiating stance, so this outcome should surprise nobody. Nor should it, sadly, be a surprise that the meeting was held behind closed doors. Why not let people see the council in action and taking on board the views of the many solicitors who supported the motion?
Indeed, the Law Society’s post-council meeting press release was disingenuous, with a headline proclaiming that ‘Council heeds members’ call for continued opposition to criminal legal aid cuts’. That wasn’t really the point of the SGM. Such sophistry does the society no favours, nor did the pettiness of the society’s Twitter account in only relaying favourable comments made at the SGM.
Similarly the repeated calls by Law Society representatives for unity ignored the fact that – for better or worse, and I am not judging which – it is Chancery Lane that has broken the unprecedented unity being displayed by the main specialist representative groups for criminal law solicitors and barristers. But I repeat a point I have made before that nobody can accuse the Law Society of taking the easy option in its approach to the government’s criminal legal aid agenda – and given the involvement of the likes of Richard Miller, Rodney Warren and Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, nobody can doubt the sincerity of its motives.
The SGM itself was conducted with excellent decorum – no shouting down or heckling. It felt a bit stage-managed at first as one after another, Law Society speakers came to the various podiums (the society expected more people than actually attended and had rigged up video links between six rooms across the building to accommodate them all), but its critics soon found eloquent voice.
It would have taken a truly seismic vote to have shaken the foundations of Chancery Lane, and this wasn’t it. The closeness of the poll – influenced, of course, by the presence of dozens of council members ahead of their meeting – was not reflected by those who contributed and the relative support their speeches received (in the main common room, at least).
It was certainly curious. With the exception of unimpressive contributions from two City solicitors, only those with a close connection to the society – council members, past presidents and the like – spoke against the motion, and yet it turned out that there was a silent near-majority in the room supporting the society.
There is now lots of talk about the need to reflect on the lessons of the SGM, to improve communications with members and so on – but in a year’s time, will we have seen any substantial change? I hope I’m wrong to be sceptical, but my confidence in the Law Society’s ability to reform itself is minimal. The council is a cumbersome body that has time and again failed to deliver any real improvement to the society’s governance.
There is a difficult circular argument that says those disaffected by the Law Society should put their money where their mouths are and stand for election to the council to improve things; but it is that very disaffection, and lack of belief in the organisation, which discourages them from doing so. Personal injury lawyers, who were let down by their representative body over LASPO, know the feeling.
But interestingly several speakers at the SGM recognised a degree of culpability on their own part in failing to hold their representative body to account up until now, so maybe there will be a movement for greater engagement by members with the Law Society and for genuine change. Let’s hope.
The stakes are high. It is important not to forget that 27% of practising fees raised from solicitors, amounting this year to the very considerable sum of £31.8m, goes to the Law Society in its representative guise. Solicitors should care where their money is going to.
An astonishing £120,000 of that was swallowed up by the SGM. I’m told this figure is made up of both direct costs, such as the services for the Electoral Reform Society and staging company, and indirect costs, like staff time and lost income by having the building effectively shut for two days.
But for now it looks like that is also the cost of a Pyrrhic victory.
Neil Rose is editor of Legal Futures
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Click here for more coverage of the vote.