I trust you all enjoyed the peaceful, rejuvenating and relaxed Christmas and New Year that that I am sure we all deserved, given the multi-faceted attacks the profession currently faces. Regrettably, the peace and tranquillity of the recent holidays is, I suspect, a dim and distant memory for most, me included. It was very much back to earth with a bump on 4th January 2016!
Although the weather has changed for the better (I far prefer the cold than the wet), the icy temperature of relations between the profession, the SRA and Central Government still continues. In that area, no thaw appears to be on the horizon.
Presidential duties have resumed in this month and I withheld writing this report until I had attended the “Round Table” event with the Chief Executive of the national Law Society, Catherine Dixon. This was held at the Law Society’s Wales office on 21st January 2016 and attended by representatives of the profession locally. I was pleased to be invited to attend, mainly thanks to the good offices of Clive Thomas, President of Monmouthshire Law Society. Many thanks to you for that Clive!
Whilst I do not suspect that our contributions to the debate and the discussions with Catherine Dixon are likely to be game changers in the larger debate with the likes of the SRA, the Lord Chancellor and the current government, it was both interesting and I believe vital that members of the profession voiced the concerns of all of us at the current multiple attacks the profession faces. It is one of the responsibilities of a local law society to act as a voice for its members. In that regard, the Confederation intends to speak for all its constituent members on such important issues and I believe that this facet of the Confederation, perhaps somewhat lacking in more recent years, needs to come back to the forefront of what we do. I intend to take the initiative on this more in the coming year.
But back to the meeting. It was perhaps inevitable that Catherine was given something of a bumpy ride during the discussions. I say that from the perspective that the majority of the comments were critical rather than congratulatory. I suspect that this was inevitable. However, the discussion was free-flowing, lively and informed. Above all it was civil, as becomes a true profession. There appeared to me to be unanimity of agreement that, at least at face value, it was both difficult to see what the national Law Society actually does for the profession at its grass-roots level as well as concern that the issues facing the profession were not publicised with a sufficient degree of high profile. Above all, there was clear understanding and concern that the threats facing the profession currently will, eventually, manifest themselves in further restrictions in access to justice and, ultimately, hit the poorest and most vulnerable in the community hardest. There was clear concern expressed that this should not be allowed to happen and that the legal profession must act to protect those in society least able to defend themselves. In this regard, I was both impressed and proud to be a Solicitor today.
I have written in this column in the past of the “threat” that the legal profession poses to central government. I firmly believe that we are seen as a considerable threat. We have the ability to understand the intricacies of the so called “reforms” that government comes up with on a regular basis; we can see through the spin and blatant nonsense that is peddled in the name of “consumer protection” and have the ability to communicate the risks that all such proposals raise to the average citizen. Additionally, we have a knowledge of the court system that allows us to act to prevent ill thought out reforms should that be necessary. The recent history of government initiatives is littered with successful challenges in the courts. Indeed, the recent Criminal Contracting exercise is now mired in legal challenges in more than 75% of the contract procurement areas. Hardly a successful or economic outcome! Thus I maintain that we are seen as a threat. Is it any wonder, then, that marginalisation of this threat is seen as an imperative?
This week we have been urged to participate in the Competition Regulator’s review of legal services at large. I urge all of you involved in the provision of legal services, in whatever guise that might be, to contribute to this debate. Given that the competition regulator comes at most things from a cost/value for money aspect, we need to make it clear in the consultation that legal services are not just about cost/price. Indeed, client research indicates quite clearly that cost is some way down the list of priorities for the majority of those wishing to access such services. Thus, consumer satisfaction cannot simply be measured by how far cost can be driven down. The peculiar aspects of legal services are an unknown country to anyone other than those whose business it is to sell such services. In that regard I urge you all to remove the veil of mystery that surrounds this area and tell it like it is. Only in this way can we stand a chance of genuinely influencing the debate.
Equally, we need to speak out to persuade the decision makers to look again at issues such as the proposed alterations to Personal Injury, both as regards the small claims limit and the suggested abolition of the ability to sue for “minor soft tissue” injuries in road accident cases. When I first read this proposal I was flummoxed. How can victim A mount a successful claim for minor soft tissue injury if it happens other than in a road accident, but then cannot simply because he was in a vehicle at the time the injury was sustained? Not only does this circumvent a long established principle of law, it is a theoretical nonsense as well. Either a tort has been committed or it has not. If it has and damages flow from the breach, why should victim A be prevented from recovering damages? With more consideration the true horror of what is being proposed is revealed. Were this to be allowed to proceed, it represents the thin end of the wedge. Pretty soon thereafter other pressure groups, for example the CBI, might think it wise to put pressure on the government in the same way the Insurance industry has (lets face it, they are the ones behind these PI proposals) and attempt to make it illegal to sue for unfair dismissal, redundancy and such matters. Is that the clinical negligence train I hear hitting the buffers? What a funding solution it would b to outlaw all clinical negligence claims against the NHS! The money saved could then be diverted back to administrators, sorry I mean patient treatment! The potential for this line of attack is truly breath-taking!
Equally, the current nonsense being peddled about high costs of litigation and the need to reduce such costs is wiped out in one stroke by the government, with its other hand, raising court fees through the roof and effectively simply adding back the very burden they are allegedly attempting to mitigate in all this.
We live in difficult times. It is incumbent on us all to stress the true effects that theses proposals will have on the average person in the street, I urge you all to do this at every opportunity.
Finally, a gratuitous plug for the Confederation AGM. 10th February 2016 at 6.00pm at the Parkhouse Club in Cardiff. Amongst the agenda items for discussion is the direction and raison d’etre of the Confederation. I urge you to join us and contribute to both that and the larger ongoing debate in our profession. See you there!
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