Law Society chief humbled

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The solicitors' leader, Martin Mears, was forced to back down on fixed fees for conveyancing yesterday, after his opponents seized on advice from the Master of the Rolls that the plan would probably break the law.

Instead, he got no more than a commitment to consult members to try to find a way to stop cut-price conveyancing, and was forced into the humiliating step of having to agree to get legal advice from a barrister on all options.

One proposal is to try to persuade the Master of the Rolls, Sir Thomas Bingham, to accept that it would be in the public interest to introduce a minimum scale of conveyancing fees - if the Law Society promised to enforce quality standards on solicitors.

The Law Society's ruling council met in London for what had been expected to be a showdown between the old guard and the newly elected Mr Mears, who had stood - with his deputy, Robert Sayers - on a policy of fighting for higher conveyancing fees.

After a stormy morning session, the leaders agreed over lunch to adopt large sections of a policy Mr Mears had described at the start of the meeting as a "wrecking amendment". Mr Mears had to apologise for his phrase. Opponents had pointed out the damage to the image of the profession if it pursued an unlawful policy to try to increase their incomes, especially if it was doomed to failure.

Mr Sayers had produced a policy which would effectively have banned cut- price conveyancers by taking away their Law Society insurance cover, because they were supposedly a bad risk. They would have been forced instead to seek cover from commercial insurers, probably paying prohibitively high premiums. In effect, cut-price conveyancing would have been banned.