Law Society “reserves right to go to court” over LSB bid to force change in SRA board

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21 September 2010

Hudson: curtailing members' terms is unacceptable

The Law Society has rejected a Legal Services Board (LSB) demand to introduce a lay majority on the board of the Solicitors Regulation Authority before 2013, Legal Futures can reveal.

The move is likely to lead to a stand-off with the LSB that could end up in the courts, with the society warning that it reserves the right to challenge any formal action which the LSB takes against it as a result.

The LSB’s internal governance rules require a lay majority on the SRA board. In July, the LSB told the Law Society that while it understood the reasons for the current non-compliance with this, waiting until 2013 – as the Law Society proposes – is not “an acceptable outcome” (see story).

A joint response from Law Society chief executive Des Hudson and SRA chief executive Antony Townsend, seen by Legal Futures, said they could only comply before January 2013 – when a new board will be in place after the current members’ terms expire – by either increasing the size of the board or terminating the appointment of existing members prematurely.

“Each option has its significant drawbacks,” they said. Increasing the size could make the board less effective, while “curtailing the term of office of members properly appointed following a public appointments process would be unacceptable”.

There are currently nine solicitor and seven lay members, but two vacancies will arise on the board at the end of 2011 when the terms of two members of the original board – solicitor Yvonne Brown and lay member Stephen Whittle – expire. They were given two-year terms to allow some continuity between boards.

Replacing both with lay members would introduce parity, but the chief executives said that this would mean no solicitor from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background on the board and only one solicitor member from the smaller firm sector.

“Whilst we accept that there cannot properly be any particular number of places reserved for BME or small firm solicitors… it is clearly highly desirable that there should be at least one BME solicitor and solicitors from small firms on the SRA board. We would therefore plan to target our recruitment to maximise our ability to replace the retiring solicitor member with another solicitor from a BME and small firm background.”

The letter to LSB chief executive Chris Kenny also pointed out that there has never been an issue on which any differences within the SRA board “could be described as a division between the lay and the solicitor members”.

The full LSB board will meet on 30 September to consider the society’s response and, if necessary, what action it will take to bring it into compliance.

The Bar Council and two intellectual property regulators are also facing similar requests to introduce lay majorities on their regulatory boards sooner than planned.

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