Solicitors today passed a motion of no-confidence in the president and chief executive of the Law Society over their handling of negotiations with the Lord Chancellor about changes to criminal legal aid.
The society’s ruling council is now meeting in emergency session to debate its response to the result of the special general meeting (SGM), which is not binding.
The vote was unexpectedly narrow given the loud vocal support during the meeting for those speaking in favour of the motion – 228 in favour, 213 against and nine abstentions.
The votes against were swelled by the presence of council members ahead of their specially convened meeting.
Both James Parry, the Liverpool criminal defence solicitor who proposed the motion, and Law Society chief executive Des Hudson said they had no intention of following up the vote with a ballot of the entire profession, although other members still have 28 days to call one. Mr Hudson said the SGM had cost £120,000 to organise and that a profession-wide ballot would cost a further £80,000.
Mr Parry told Legal Futures that he was “quite content” with the outcome of the SGM and a further ballot “could be an added distraction”. Instead he called on the society to “move towards getting its act together… and work for the profession”. He urged its leaders to engage with him and other criminal defence solicitors, saying one lesson of the SGM was that the society had failed to communicate properly with its members.
“I want it to become a more effective and campaigning organisation,” Mr Parry said.
He said it was for president Nick Fluck and chief executive Des Hudson to consider their positions in light of the vote.
Speaking to reporters after the SGM, Mr Hudson said the current focus was on research on the reforms that will shortly be published and other pressing issues. “Once we have dealt with our duties to our members, we will then consider other things,” he said.
While indicating that the society would maintain its position, he acknowledged that “there are questions about how we consult our members”. In his opening remarks to the SGM, Mr Parry called on the society to “abandon its culture of secrecy”.
He also compared Chancery Lane’s position to that of Neville Chamberlain before World War II. “Appeasement didn’t work then and it’s unlikely to work now,” he said. “We need to the Law Society to get in line with the other practitioner bodies.”
Mr Parry argued that civil legal aid specialists, conveyancers and personal injury lawyers had all been let down by the Law Society in the past. “We must call the Law Society to account… if we don’t, we face the destruction of the legal aid system and many of our businesses.”
During the SGM, several solicitors argued that the society did not have mandate to reach the agreement it did with the Lord Chancellor, saying that they should have been consulted before doing so.
“No one’s asked me if I’m prepared to be put out of business,” said solicitor Graham Pressler.
The society was criticised for not being vocal in its opposition to the government’s policy – there was not even a letter-writing campaign, one speaker noted – and for leaving it to others to take the fight to the Ministry of Justice.
Well-known solicitor Louise Christian said she was voting in favour of the motion for one reason: “I want the Law Society to be a campaigning organisation… not for us, but for our clients.”
In the post-SGM press briefing, Mr Fluck said that “campaigns come in all sorts of flavours – the campaign flavour we’ve selected is engagement”.
All of the speakers against the motion had strong connections with the Law Society, with the exception of two City solicitors. One, Alistair Douglas, chairman of the City of London Law Society, described the SGM as an “embarrassment” and said a vote of no-confidence would damage Chancery Lane’s wider credibility.
Mr Hudson told the press that “some of our [criminal solicitor] members do not reflect the views of Mr Parry” – but acknowledged that none of them had spoken up at the SGM. He also indicated that this lack of a united view meant any move towards direct action would not succeed; Mr Fluck said the Bar was much more cohesive.
Joy Merriam, the council member for criminal defence and past chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, told members that she had been persuaded that the society’s current approach was the best one and that more firms would survive than would have done under either price competitive tendering or the proposals of the Big Firms Group, which would see the current 1,600 criminal law firms reduced to 250-300.
Fellow council member Sundeep Bhatia argued that to vote for the motion would allow the likes of the Big Firms Group to step in and influence government.
However, member Martin Scarborough said that the choice being presented to criminal solicitors was “either a gunshot to the head or to bleed to death”.
“The only way the government will listen is if we take direct action,” he said. Several speakers called on solicitors to join the Criminal Bar Association’s day of action on 6 January.
In his remarks to the SGM, Mr Fluck pointed to the concessions secured so far. “None of these is insignificant, none of them were easily won, but there is still more to play for. I think we can get more concessions if we work together.
“I believe the changes we’ve achieved, because of the approach we’ve taken, gives many criminal legal aid practitioners and their firms, opportunities for survival that did not exist before.”