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Onward, comrades

Onward, comrades


Lawyers want a new form of representation, but are those in charge listening to them, asks John van der Luit-Drummond

Barbarians are banging on the gates of the legal profession, and the Legal Services Board (LSB) is leading the charge with a battering ram of regulatory reforms. At least that is the suggestion of one leading lawyer.

Speaking at the International Bar Association's annual conference in Washington DC, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC has listed the various threats to the professionalism of lawyers, such as political pressures, societal changes, an often hostile press, the commercialisation of legal work, and new technology.

Of particular note, however, was her lamenting of the LSB's latest 'vision' for the sector's regulatory framework. The super regulator has proposed cutting ties with the representative bodies, abolishing the existing watchdogs, and forming a new single regulator. Chancery Lane has already dismissed the proposals, with Law Society president Robert Bourns describing them as mistimed and 'misconceived'.

Referencing the report this week, Doerries highlighted how the LSB compared its own oversight role with that of Ofwat and Ofgem. 'It is, to my mind, evidence of the challenges legal professionals face in the 21st century that the regulation of their profession is compared to the task of sewage regulation,' said the commercial silk from Atkin Chambers.

As noted by Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon, the board has failed to recognise the importance of an independent legal profession in its report, which 'if lost, would undermine the very fabric of our society and our ability to maintain the rule of law'. So, the LSB has won no new friends but, judging by the responses to Michael Turner QC's call for lawyers to form a trade union, it is not the only body lawyers are less than impressed with.

Solicitors Journal's interview with the former Criminal Bar Association chair clearly struck a chord with readers, and reopened the debate as to whether the Law Society and Bar Council represent its members. A refusal from both bodies to even reply to Turner's complaints will only reinforce the belief that neither the society, nor council, cares for the rank and file's needs.

Taking to Twitter, Jonathan Black, past president of the London Criminal Court Solicitors' Association, said Turner's comments were: 'A fair appraisal and comparison of where we are and how we got there.' Five Paper Buildings' Jonathan Rich commented: 'Michael Turner QC is right '“ barristers need an organisation to represent them.'

Of course, the proposal to unite did not appeal to all, once again demonstrating the profession's disparity. Barrister Barbara Hewson said a union was 'impossible', adding: 'Only employees can be effectively unionised. Bar [a] cottage industry [equals] screwed.' Or, as non-practising barrister Howard Jones also pointed out: 'No reference to the fact that the New Labour [government] claimed we would be in breach of the Enterprise Act if barristers, as self-employed professionals, took collective action against fee cuts.'

Nevertheless, on balance, there seems an appetite for unionising the legal workforce, or at least those that are paid from public funds. Writing on Facebook, solicitor Leo Goatley, who famously represented serial killer Rose West at her 1995 murder trial, said a trade union was 'sound and creative thinking'.

'Occupations undertaking publicly funded work are pliable and vulnerable at the hands of governments now driven to reduce the state,' he said. 'This is so whether the bodies concerned are doctors, nurses, teachers, scientists, or lawyers. It is perhaps a belated and uneasy realisation that lawyers have no privileged position on account of their skill set in this shifting power-play, a trend that mirrors much of the retrograde trend towards social and economic polarity in society.'

Anonymous brief @CrimBarrister added: 'I would be so up for a proper union for criminal barristers and solicitors. Surely one of our eminent QCs could find a workable structure?'

So, over to you, learned silks. The future of the profession is in your hands. Just be careful, lest a future Bar chief declare the Barbarians weren't just outside the gates, but already inside the walls too.

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal | @JvdLD