Legal Aid

What does the future look like for solicitors?

PUBLISHED July 18, 2006

WHEN THE demand for lawyers? services continues to grow year on year and the City goes from strength to strength ? contributing almost ?2 billion towards the UK?s GDP ? it may seem unnecessary to raise a question about the future of the profession. But what concerns me is the the prospects for traditional high street solicitors ? who work in criminal legal aid, conveyancing or wills and probate.

Their future is up for grabs because of the upheavals presaged by Lord Carter's report last week on legal aid and by the Legal Services Bill. Both pose difficult challenges to the way solicitors do their work, while the Bill threatens the way the solicitors? profession regulates itself.

To take the Bill first: we have told the joint parliamentary scrutiny committee that significant amendments are needed to preserve the strengths of the existing system, rather than to create unwieldy, excessive and expensive new tiers of regulation.

More crucially, the plans to create a legal services board with far-reaching, expensive powers could damage irrevocably the independence and effectiveness of the legal profession ? a profession vital to the health of society and the prosperity of UK plc.

Then we have Lord Carter?s review of legal aid and his plans for a competitive marketplace with fewer, larger legal aid firms. We need a system that is financially sustainable in the long term, and Lord Carter?s proposals, if properly implemented, could offer that. But more work is needed to develop these untested proposals. It is vital that fees are set at a viable level to achieve a sustainable system that provides access to justice throughout the country.

The Law Society is still unconvinced that these proposals will guarantee access to justice for all. But we will work constructively with the Government to try to translate Lord Carter?s proposals into a system that will succeed on the ground. The Carter reforms will mean significant changes for all legal aid firms and we are committed to supporting solicitors through the transition by providing practical help to enable them to restructure.

The Law Society has also campaigned on matters of concern to the profession. The stamp duty land tax chaos, for example ? with the active support of 4,500 members (firms and individual solicitors) ? led to Revenue & Customs recognising its failings and improving the system. More recently, pressure from the Law Society forced the Government to change the Finance Bill and so spared millions of families the trouble and expense of having to rewrite their wills to avoid steep inheritance tax penalties.

In May an intervention by the society prompted the CPS to reverse its decision to stop giving work to sole practitioners.

And while we still have concerns about the practical effects of the Government?s proposals on home information packs, we have done a great deal to provide the profession with a definitive solution that we believe will make solicitors the providers of choice for homesellers.

There have been other successes: one of the biggest came only a short time ago ? the Government?s decision to locate the future office for legal complaints ? to cover all branches of the legal profession ? in the West Midlands so that it can build on the experience and expertise of the existing staff in our Consumer Complaints Service, based there. Of course, this is not a success that on the face of it will resonate with the public.

Complaints handling has improved greatly during the past six years; but it continues to be a significant problem in terms of public perception.

The recent fine imposed by the Legal Services Complaints Commissioner does not help. We strongly reject that the fine was justified; we will continue to work to improve complaints handling during the transition to new independent complaints service to be set up under the government legal reforms.

If all this sounds like trumpet-blowing, it is. Nineteen thousand solicitors had their say and they have great expectations that things are going to change for the better ? I want to let them know that they are. We will continue to deliver real improvements for the profession on the issues that they tell us matter to them.

The past 12 months have been a period of monumental change for solicitors. But I believe we can win the crucial changes needed to guarantee professional independence under the Legal Services Bill, and also secure a stable and diverse supplier base from Carter. Even though it may seem that the traditional models of practice are being challenged on a number of fronts, I am convinced that the profession will not merely survive but also go on and continue to thrive.

The author is President of the Law Society