The chairman of the Criminal Bar Association has called for unity in the profession and attempted to quell ‘disquiet’ over the Law Society’s decision to share with the Ministry of Justice its proposals for an alternative to price-competitive tendering (PCT).
In his weekly online comment, Michael Turner QC said that much of the Law Society’s proposals have ‘merit’ - and he insisted that Chancery Lane ‘has not sought to sell either its own profession or ours (the bar) short’.
Turner said there has been ‘a good deal of disquiet’ about the meetings between justice secretary Chris Grayling and the Law Society and he set out an account of the events that had led up to them.
Turner said that Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff had arranged to meet Grayling following his evidence session at the Justice Committee last Wednesday.
Grayling sought to bring the meeting forward and Scott-Moncrieff ‘insisted’ she attend the rescheduled meeting.
Fearing that Grayling would use the meeting to try to break the profession’s unity, a ‘joint practitioners’ meeting, including representatives of the Law Society, Criminal Bar Association, Criminal Law Solicitors Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, agreed a document setting out an alternative to PCT ‘alone’.
Turner said the proposals, which dealt only with the solicitor profession, were a ‘collaborative effort’ but that there was ‘by no means unanimity as to the entirety of it’.
Supporting the Law Society’s proposals, Turner said they seek to deal with two particular issues – ‘ghost’ solicitors employed by firms seeking to get more duty solicitor slots, and the ‘over supply’ in the market.
In relation to the duty solicitor scheme, Turner said: ‘No one can sensibly argue that the practice of selling duty solicitor slots should not be banished forever.’
On the proposals to consolidate the market over time, Turner said ‘far from seeking to crush small firms these proposals seek to protect them’.
He said: ‘Small firms will be allowed to maintain their size for a year, after which the Law Society may instruct them to take on further staff if wishing to remain in the market.
‘This could be as little as one extra duty solicitor. The firms will then have a year to comply.’
In addition, he said the Law Society’s scheme would allow two one-person firms to come together under an ‘umbrella management structure’ whilst maintaining their identity.
Turner said that the Big Firms Group had wanted to propose minimum contract sizes, which Turner said would have ‘decimated the small firms’.
‘This proposal is nowhere near that. It allows the small firms to upsize slowly and proportionately,’ he said.
Turner said Grayling’s spin on the proposals had added to the alarm felt by some. He reassured lawyers that the proposals had not dealt with fee cuts and that all in the profession remained opposed to them.
Turner said that with the retention of client choice, PCT is ‘dead’, but that in refusing to acknowledge that, Grayling has ‘failed to understand his own scheme’.
‘You can not tender for a contract if you do not know what slice of the market it gives you,’ he said.
Turner accused Grayling of using the meeting with the Law Society to try to drive a wedge between the bar and solicitors’ profession.
He noted: ‘This attempt has sadly been assisted by others within the professions who should frankly know better.’
Stressing the continued unity in the profession, Turner said: ‘All of us have pledged to fight cuts and PCT to the bitter end. We have joined side by side to do just that. Do not allow ignorance and spin to pull us apart.’
He added: ‘The only thing politicians are really good at is sowing the seeds of doubt in others.
‘There is not a leader at the bar or within the solicitors’ profession who is in favour of making cuts and indeed there is simply no moral or practical case for them. Indeed the opposite is true.’
A Law Society spokesman said: ‘In his usual robust style Michael Turner has confirmed that there is more to be gained by working together to defeat PCT and that the Law Society’s proposal has much to recommend it, especially for small firms.’
But he added: ‘Grayling has offered one small concession, but the battle is far from over if we are to persuade him that his deeply flawed proposals are dead in the water.’