President's Letter (February 2011)

WHAT WILL 2011 HAVE IN STORE FOR PRACTITIONERS IN WALES?

I suspect that the answer to this question will depend a lot on whether you are a solicitor in a high street practice or in a medium to large regional or national firm. 

Those who are engaged in advising solicitors’ practices, predict a large number of mergers throughout England and Wales in the year ahead, particularly amongst small firms, as the market consolidates following the Legal Services Act and in the lead up to the creation of ABS’.

Solicitors, accountants and bankers that I have spoken to argue that firms, particularly sole practitioners, 2 and 3 partner firms, have begun to recognise the need to consolidate, either to remain financially viable or to become competitive.  Indeed that is my own experience, having merged with three other practices in the last 9 months. 

It remains to be seen whether such consolidation will protect those firms from competition from organisations with an established consumer brand – the so called Tesco Law.  We know that the AA and SAGA have already unveiled their new on-line legal shop, allowing both members and non-members to access legal services via the Web; this I understand includes telephone advice which can be free or at a competitive price.  More importantly, it is available in the evenings and at weekends.  How many solicitors’ practices are open for business at such times?

Solicitors working for central and local government in Wales, which account for 13% of all solicitors in Wales, are not immune from the pressures of consolidation and cut backs.  I fear that they too will sooner or later be exposed to pressures that hitherto have fallen upon those in private practice. 

ACCESS TO JUSTICE

The concept is more often than not mentioned in relation to the availability of legal aid or, rather, the lack thereof.  I fear that as more and more citizens lose their entitlement to legal aid and, in effect, legal representation, there is a distinct possibility that this could lead to a break down in law and order in many of our communities.  That statement sounds dramatic and I have no intention of making a drama out of a crisis.  However, as a profession, we have a duty to inform and educate our coalition government that they are ploughing a dangerous path.  I fear that our elected politicians, and more importantly the decision makers amongst them, have not understood the implications of what they are proposing.

I fear that it is too late for the tens of Magistrates and County Courts that either have or will be closed during the year ahead – many of which are on our doorstep.

THE REGULATION

If the pressures mentioned above are not enough to cause practitioners to consider retirement (assuming they can afford to) I understand that the SRA are contemplating removing cover for mortgage lenders from the minimum terms and conditions of solicitors’ indemnity insurance.  If this happens, and assuming firms want to act for banks and building societies, they will need to arrange their own top up cover.  This, again, is a direct threat to the existence of conveyancing firms – perhaps that is what the regulator intends, by softening up practices before Tesco, AA, the Co-Op and others begin to hoover up domestic conveyancing from October 2011.

Notwithstanding all these threats, the number of practising solicitors in England and Wales has, for the first time, exceeded 120,000.  Whether last year’s 7% increase does “defy gravity” as claimed by one commentator, sooner or later such numbers are bound to impact on the cost of legal services to the consumer and indeed on the salaries that can be commanded by solicitors in the jobs market – maybe we will all end up working for Tesco. I am told that stacking shelves pays well!

VOTE FOR CHANGE

If 2010 was the year of surprise in Westminster, 2011 may well be the year of surprises in Cardiff Bay

In May, the National Assembly elections will take place.  Before then, on 3 March, a referendum will be held on whether the Assembly should have the power to make laws on the devolved subject areas, without first having to ask Westminster for its agreement.  The existing procedures are frankly insulting to the people of Wales and their elected representatives in the Assembly. 

You may not subscribe to or support the concept of devolution for Wales. However, the powers that were obtained in 1998 and 2006 will remain after the referendum.  The real question is whether we want to have an efficient and modern law making institution or simply an archaic model operating under the whim of politicians in Westminster - legislative competence orders can take many months or sometimes years to come into force.  I know what I want. Do you?

Finally, I was pleased to note that the Law Society Gazette on 20 January 2011 decided to reflect on the forthcoming referendum and the impact of granting full law making powers to the Assembly. The article also deals with the potential impact on such developments on solicitors’ practices in Wales.  I would recommend that you read that article, which is available in hard copy on on-line.  At long last journalists and indeed lawyers outside Wales are beginning to wake up to the fact that we have been passing different laws in Wales over the last 10 years – maybe one day practitioners in Wales will realise that the Scots had good reason to hang on to their own laws and exclusive rights to practice north of the border.  I think that they call it self-preservation.

I wish you all well for this year ahead and hope that you will join us in celebrating the Society’s 125th Anniversary at the Dinner on 13th May  - don’t forget to put in your nominations for  our two Awards – see page 9! 

Peter Davies
President
peter@jpeterdavies.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

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