Andrew Holroyd says that James Parry has set his sights on the wrong target in the wording of his motion of no confidence in the Law Society’s president and chief executive. I agree. But I would go further to say that he has misunderstood what has been agreed between the Society and the Ministry of Justice, and what has not, and has also misunderstood the relationship between the Society and its members.
Two matters were agreed before the MoJ’s second consultation was published in September.
The first was that the MoJ would include in the consultation a significant alternative to its original plan. The alternative would not include price-competitive tendering, would allow client choice and allow any firm meeting basic quality standards to have a contract to do own-client work. It would also allow firms to bid alone or with others for the more limited number of large duty solicitor contracts the MoJ intends to offer.
This was a much better proposal than the one in the first consultation, although it would undoubtedly create problems for those unable or unwilling to meet the standards or to come together to bid for the big contracts. The sting in the tail of fee cuts would make life difficult for everyone.
The second agreement was that the Law Society and MoJ would jointly commission a study on the economic viability of the ministry’s preferred duty solicitors scheme, in light of the fee cuts that it was insisting on making. This study would be based on responses from practitioners, and bring up-to-date and relevant evidence into the decision-making process following the consultation.
That is the extent of the agreements. There was no agreement on cuts. The Law Society has always said that there are other ways to achieve the savings the ministry has committed to make, and indeed has commissioned research to establish whether the reduced take-up of criminal legal aid may have already achieved much of the saving the MoJ insists is necessary.
However, Mr Parry’s motion, though undoubtedly triggered by his dismay at what is on offer, is not about what has or has not been achieved. It condemns the president and chief executive for not consulting all criminal defence practitioners before reaching these agreements.
But the relationship between the Society and its members is not the same as that between solicitor and client, where consent certainly has to be obtained before negotiating on behalf of the client (often, in the case of criminal defence solicitors, with rather limited options available, none of them very attractive).
Does Mr Parry think that there should have been a plebiscite before the Society judicially reviewed the MoJ on the family legal aid contract, or before it started the ‘Sound Off For Justice’ campaign, or before it lobbied for the abolition of the assigned risks pool, which has cost so many of us so much over the years? Or when the Society intervened in the Prudential case to prevent legal professional privilege being available to other professions?
The list goes on – and the cost, difficulty and unhelpfulness of endless referendums of sections of the profession are obvious.
The Society’s democratic credibility comes from its elected council. The quality of its interventions comes from the joint efforts of the staff, council members and expert committee members, appointed through well-advertised competition open to the whole profession.
I know Mr Parry must be very busy, as most legal aid lawyers are, but I very much hope that he will consider standing for election or seeking appointment to a Law Society position so that his energy and commitment can enhance the work the Society continues to do for legal aid lawyers (which I have been doing for 46 years).
Malcolm Fowler, member, Law Society council, Dennings, Tipton