Rules strengthening ‘collegiality’ among members of the Law Society council and the way they express dissent are to be voted on this month.
Changes to the code of conduct for council members also seek to impose collective responsibility on chairs of the society’s various boards so that they are not allowed to express personal dissent from decisions made by their board – although they can vote against them.
The recommendations of the council members conduct committee (CMCC) have been approved by the society’s management board and will now be considered at the next council meeting later this month.
Currently the code provides that “members should recognise that decisions with which they disagree may be made by a majority of the council. Members may dissent, but should not seek to frustrate the implementation of decisions properly reached.”
A CMCC paper presented to the management board last week said the ambit and effectiveness of this provision is “very limited” as it only applies to council decisions – and not other parts of the Law Society – does not catch members operating in other capacities and specifically allows dissent. It also gives scope for argument about defining frustration and whether a decision has been “properly reached”, it said.
It proposed that this be replaced with: “Members must uphold the standing of the society at all times and conduct themselves in such a manner as not to bring the society into disrepute. Although members may legitimately disagree with society policy and decision-making, comments about policies and decisions should not be made in such a manner as to bring the reputation of the society into disrepute.”
The CMCC told the management board that it would be “inappropriate and possibly unconstitutional to attempt to impose collective responsibility, even assuming this would be acceptable to the council, which is doubtful. However, the CMCC feels that the society is entitled to require, through its code of conduct, that any dissent be expressed in measured, temperate terms and in such a way as not to harm the society’s reputation”.
It is not clear, however, how these requirements would be judged and whether they would also give scope for arguments over definitions.
On board chairs, the CCMC said: “The boards are a key part of the society’s decision-making and governance processes, and it seems reasonable that when their recommendations are presented to the council by the chair they are presented as those of the board as a whole, and that the council should not be tempted or invited to go behind the recommendations.
“It can be said that if a board chair feels that in all conscience he or she cannot present recommendations with which he or she strongly disagrees, then the only remedy is resignation. On the other hand, a chair in such a position might feel that as he or she had been voted in by council members he was entitled to carry on.”
The CCMC also noted that the management board itself – as the main board under the council – has “an informal self-denying ordinance that its members should not speak in council against board recommendations but may vote against them if they felt it necessary”.