Prime minister Margaret Thatcher ordered her lord chancellor to investigate ways to improve the ‘efficiency and probity’ of independent solicitors amid ‘disquiet’ about the Law Society’s ability to discipline the profession, newly declassified 1980s archives reveal.
Cabinet minutes for 1985, released by the National Archives, show that the Conservative prime minister - a former practising barrister - took a personal interest in efforts to find a way to allow solicitors employed by banks and building societies to undertake conveyancing without facing conflicts of interest.
The issue was discussed at consecutive Cabinet meetings in March 1985, where it competed for attention with the miners’ strike and a flare-up in the Iran-Iraq war.
According to the minutes, the issue reached the Cabinet when the House of Commons Home and Social Affairs Committee failed to resolve ‘real difficulties’ posed by the government’s pledge to allow employed solicitors to undertake conveyancing.
The measure had been proposed as part of a deregulation package which included the creation of licensed conveyancers under the 1985 Administration of Justice Act.
The solicitor general, Sir Patrick Mayhew QC, told the Cabinet that ‘he did not himself consider that he or the government could be accused of dishonourable conduct if… they felt obliged to tell the house that they had found the difficulties [over conflict of interest] much harder to overcome than had been expected’.
However he was rebuffed by the prime minister who urged Lord Hailsham, the lord chancellor, 'to seek strenuously to find a way of enabling employed solicitors to undertake conveyancing, which would avoid problems of conflict of interest’.
She added that the discussion 'also revealed considerable disquiet about the quality of the service currently provided by independent solicitors and in particular the ability of the Law Society to discipline members of the profession and provide redress where inefficiency or malpractice had occurred'.
The Cabinet 'invited the lord chancellor to consider what further action was needed to ensure the efficiency and probity of solicitors, and to ensure that complaints against solicitors were effectively dealt with and that redress against malpractice or inefficiency was readily available’.
The meeting moved on to discuss an outbreak of ‘football hooliganism at a match between Luton Town and Millwall’.
Other issues surfacing in Cabinet during the year included the Prosecution of Offences Act, which created the Crown Prosecution Service, and the need to introduce an offence of telecommunications interception following the European Court of Human Rights decision in Malone v UK.
Leon Brittan, home secretary, warned that the debate would ‘be extremely sensitive and would given [sic] an opportunity for discussion of the work of the security services. There were features of the existing system which would be revealed for the first time’.
In December 1985, Thatcher noted an increasing tendency for legislation to be challenged in the courts, saying 'it seemed that more and more cases were being lost'. One 'very significant factor' was the changed relationship between central and local government, the Cabinet minutes record her as saying.
'Legislation was drafted on a basis that those affected could be expected to behave reasonably, at any rate so far as local authorities were concerned; but local authorities could no longer be counted on as the agents or partners in good faith of central government.’