|Legal aid, modernising the court service and the introduction of home information packs are just some of the issues facing the Law Society over the coming year, says incoming president Kevin Martin
My year as president began in the shadow of an unexpected, and particularly sad event. I took office in the days following the horror of the first London bombings.
The events that unfolded spurred the Law Society in to taking positive action to help those affected by the attacks. We knew that sound legal advice would be invaluable to many of those touched by these dreadful circumstances and we wanted to ensure that it was available, without cost, to those who needed it. To date more than 20 firms and individual solicitors have offered their services on a pro bono basis in support of the London bombings helpline.
Many enquiries have already been received. I am extremely proud of the profession?s response, and hope that this service will be a help to victims and their families in the aftermath of this terrible atrocity.
There is no doubt that the year ahead will have its difficulties but I am confident about positive outcomes. I have started the year as I mean to go on ? ensuring that the Law Society responds confidently to challenges, while showing the leadership to which the profession is entitled.
In the next 12 months I will be focusing on a number of priority areas. Legal aid is very much at the top of my list and I am determined to work towards real and lasting improvements in the year ahead. The current system continues to struggle under immense pressure. Legal aid is undoubtedly in danger of collapse in certain parts of England and Wales.
The government must act now to ensure real access to justice for all. To do this effectively, it must develop a coherent strategy for legal aid that recognises it is a front-line public service. But that simply will not happen unless the government recognises the need for more resources for legal aid and takes immediate action to address the situation. It is the only way to rescue the current system from the brink of disaster.
Another target for the Law Society is the Legal Services Commission?s (LSC) drive to push down the costs of criminal defence. There is potential for this to have severe implications for vulnerable clients in complex legal cases. Government proposals for price competitive tendering are seriously flawed and will have an unfair impact on ethnic minority solicitors and their clients. This is entirely unacceptable. As such we will be urging the LSC to address our concerns on quality, choice and access to justice and to rethink the proposals.
The Law Society is committed to finding new and cost-effective ways of handling cases to improve value for money for the public. But the reality is the civil courts continue to suffer from a serious case of underinvestment. Funding the court service from court fees is clearly not working. Delays and inefficiencies are common despite the commitment of court staff, many of whom are struggling with staff shortages and outdated administrative systems. The court system is creaking at the seams and what is needed now is a focused injection of funds to modernise it. Rest assured the Law Society will continue to lobby the government for improvements.
In preparation for the advent of home information packs (HIPs) in 2007, the Law Society has set up a task force to ensure that we continue to take a lead role in the debate. We are all too aware of the huge impact that these proposals could have on the conveyancing market. There are considerable doubts about whether HIPs will bring the benefits that government claims for them. This is why it is so important there is an effective dry run of the packs in 2006. If HIPs are implemented, we will do everything in our power to ensure that the detail will be workable and that solicitors will be leaders in the new system.
Equality and diversity is another issue that I will focus on and I aim to continue in earnest the good work that the Law Society has carried out in recent years.
I also look forward to promoting our legal profession on the international stage and also hosting the Commonwealth Law 2005 conference ? which incorporates the Solicitors 2005 conference ? from 11 to 15 September. Hundreds of prominent lawyers and judges from all areas of practice in the 53 Commonwealth countries will meet in London. I am sure this will prove to be one of the highlights of my year in office. If you have not already booked a place I encourage you to take a look at the programme. Visit:www.commonwealthlaw2005.com.
During my presidency, the Law Society?s newly established regulation and consumer complaints boards will start operating. Achieving clear separation of the Law Society?s representative and regulatory functions is essential if the Society is to retain the confidence of consumers and the profession.
Before setting up the new structures to enable best delivery of the Law Society?s representative services, we will be consulting members of the profession. I urge all solicitors to be involved and to have their say.
It is my aim to build a representative arm that involves all solicitors, one that communicates effectively with every sector of the profession and provides services to solicitors that are value for money and of exceptional quality.
Kevin Martin is the Law Society President