The Law Society needs to re-open the debate on the two-tier contract after losing a vote of no confidence in its leadership, James Parry, the solicitor-advocate who proposed the motion has said.
The vote passed by 228 votes to 213 at a Special General Meeting (SGM) at the Law Society’s Chancery Lane headquarters on Tuesday, December 17. The Law Society Council met in the afternoon to discuss its response, which has not yet been communicated.
The Law Society has given no indication that its President, Nicholas Fluck, or chief executive, Des Hudson, consider it a resigning issue. It has also ruled out the possibility of a postal ballot of members.
Parry, partner at Liverpool firm Parry Welch Lacey, led the campaign for a no-confidence vote in protest at the Law Society’s tactics of engagement with, rather than opposition to, the Lord Chancellor’s proposals on criminal legal aid.
Speaking after the meeting, Parry said: “It’s a personal choice. I have to say if I was the President I would carefully review my position and decide to go. They have got to listen, and make a statement on what they’re going to do. I don’t see how they can do nothing. But I understand why they don’t want to go for a postal ballot.”
“If they say we are going to change our approach and going to work closely with the Criminal Law Solicitors Association and the London Criminal Court Solicitors Association, and treat them as equals and not go behind their back, then that would be a good step.
“The meeting also highlighted the universal condemnation for what Grayling has proposed. It shows that criminal lawyers are fed up and are not going to tolerate what they’re proposing, and the Law Society could use that fact in their negotiations.”
Parry said attempts at mediation, facilitated by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, ahead of the SGM, floundered due to a failure to agree over two-tier contracts (own client and duty solicitor contracts).
“We tried very hard before the meeting to come to an agreement with mediation, and the sticking point was the two-tier contract. I would like them to come out fighting on that. The mediation was very useful in many ways but we couldn’t agree on the two-tier contract. They don’t want to re-open that issue, and that’s exactly what we want them to do.”
The Law Society preferred single-tier contracts but agreed to the Ministry of Justice’s proposals. In a statement in October, it explained: “Unfortunately, the MoJ considered that there were procurement law problems with the proposal we suggested. Our own legal advice, while more optimistic, did indicate that the MoJ’s concerns were not entirely fanciful. The two-tier model informed by what has become the Otterburn and Ling assessment is a sensible approach to resolve those difficulties; and in the circumstances, we agreed to accept this approach as part of the wider agreement.”
Parry believes the proposed fee cuts will make the majority of criminal defence work unviable, and that two-thirds of criminal law firms could go out of business. Fees are to be cut by 17.5%, although Parry says the cuts will be worse in reality as there will be a flat fee of £321 for magistrates’ court trials.
The Bar Council, Criminal Law Solicitors Association and London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association have pursued campaigns of opposition.
However, Des Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, has staunchly defended its tactics, arguing that engagement was a more productive approach than opposition and led to ministers dropping plans to introduce price competitive tendering and remove client choice.
Speaking at the December 17 meeting, Hudson said: “We have pursued a policy of engagement with the government because we believe – and past evidence shows us – non-engagement does not work.
“By doing what solicitors do best: making evidence-based arguments, changes by the government have been achieved in the interests of our members. We have never agreed to any cuts—and we never will.”
Following the meeting, a Law Society spokesperson said: “We have listened to our criminal legal aid members. There are lessons to be learned and we will reflect on these developments. Council will consider the outcome today. Our immediate priority is to continue to influence the Ministry of Justice in our members’ interests. We will continue to make it very clear to the Lord Chancellor that we remain opposed to cuts.”
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