Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures
The last week has seen both a victory and a defeat for lawyer lobbying, and perhaps the most fearsome legal lobbying machine – the Bar – crank into action.
The victory came in the surprise climbdown by HSBC over its restricted conveyancing panel. A global banking giant felled by a campaign spearheaded by the Law Society but with strong support from the likes of the Bold Group. It was pursued at a national level, with coverage in several national newspapers, and also at a local level, with solicitors talking to their estate agent contacts. All should take much credit, and particularly the oft-maligned denizens of Chancery Lane.
If I were to guess, based on some of the press coverage, I would say that HSBC backtracked not because of concerns over access to lawyers, but because estate agents were reportedly advising prospective buyers to steer away from seeking a mortgage from the bank.
It matters not – but while the society turns its attentions to other banks narrowing their legal panels, it will also have to prove that the Conveyancing Quality Scheme it touts as the answer to lenders’ concerns is truly robust. How stringent is the reaccreditation process? Are firms actually being kicked out for non-compliance? Lenders will want to know that it is not just a badge put on all existing conveyancers.
The Law Society and many others were significantly less successful in persuading the Solicitors Regulation Authority to maintain a that is above the level of the national minimum wage.
I remain torn by this issue. It is all too easy to make the case for the minimum salary, and in very emotive terms too – which is why several people have, especially over the one-time prospect of trainees being paid £2.80 an hour in their first year – but is it a matter with which a regulator should concern itself?
Let’s set it against the regulatory objectives in section 1 of the Legal Services Act 2007 that underpin regulation nowadays, especially that of “encouraging an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession” – with an emphasis on the “diverse” given the disproportionate impact scrapping the minimum is predicted to have on women and those from ethnic minorities. On that basis, it looks like SRA critics have a point.
However, if one looks to the Legal Services Board’s description of what the regulatory objectives mean, and specifically what “diverse” means in this context, it says this: “We consider that for public interest reasons and good business sense as much as for meeting this regulatory objective that the legal industry should reflect the population it serves.
“At entry, retention and progression we will support approved regulators in ensuring that there are no artificial barriers or discriminatory hurdles to legal careers caused by regulation. We will promote equality and diversity through our regulatory framework and we expect approved regulators to do the same.”
On this reading, perhaps the minimum salary does not fit as obviously with the regulatory objectives as it may look at first blush. Further, as several members of the SRA board said when it was debated last week, surely there are better ways of addressing diversity issues than wage control.
Finally we have the Criminal Bar Association possibly gearing itself up to strike over legal aid. You can understand why – arguably the worst place to be in a legal career right now is at the junior criminal Bar – and certainly the threat received a huge wave of media coverage last Friday. However, those contacting the BBC Radio 5live programme I was listening to were not overly sympathetic about barristers’ pay.
At the same time, the Bar is good at this – better than the Law Society, I would judge. If nothing else it has better access to the government than most through the many barristers knocking around Westminster. Indeed, the Attorney General and Solicitor General remain ex-officio members of the Bar Council and attend its meetings.
Though successive governments of recent years have whacked the Bar with as much gusto as they have gone for solicitors, you cannot help but feel the Bar has more pull – just witness the very rapid government climbdown last autumn when the criminal Bar was up in arms over Legal Services Commission plans to end special payment levels for QCs. Some kind of deal over legal aid is far more likely than the sight of barristers with placards demonstrating in front of the Old Bailey.
But where legal lobbying has, in the main, failed miserably is over what is now the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. The Law Society ran Sound off for Justice campaign, a slick (well, relative to previous Law Society campaigns at least) and expensive (£300,000 plus) effort that sat alongside lobbying by other coalitions.
Readers will know that I have a particular interest in the Jackson reforms, and here I think the professional bodies and other campaign groups should acknowledge an even greater collective failure. While most had the same objectives, they could not form a common position until the Law Society, Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and Motor Accident Solicitors Society cobbled together a compromise far too late in the day.
Who can say what would have happened had a coherent and unified voice been heard all the way through the bill’s passage through Parliament? But certainly it couldn’t have gone much worse than it did.
The legal profession does not have the power it once did as a lobby, but as the HSBC climbdown proves, now and again it can still bare its claws if it gets its act together.