Limit on lawyers 'falls foul' of law

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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Correspondent

Martin Mears, the solicitors' leader, has been blocked by legal difficulties over his pledge to restrict numbers entering the profession - a key part of his populist election manifesto.

Last year, in the first contested election for Law Society President in 40 years, Mr Mears was voted in by the beleaguered small-firm sector of the profession, on the promise that he would restore incomes eroded over 15 years. He had accused the Law Society establishment of a defeatist attitude in failing to protect the profession.

Mr Mears confirmed yesterday that the society had received a QC's opinion that it would be acting outside its powers if it arbitrarily limited numbers.

Counsel had been asked to consider the legality of limiting the size of the profession to a notional figure equivalent to the amount of work available. He said that move was likely to fall foul of the both the Solicitors Act and the Legal Services Act. The Law Society has a dual role, as both the trade union and the statutory regulator of the profession, which means that where it acts to benefit the profession, it has to be able to argue that it is acting in the public interest.

There was undoubtedly a problem with too many students being allowed to pass their exams, Mr Mears said. There was a backlog of 26,000 people who have passed the exams and been unable to get the training contracts with firms which they need to complete qualification.

Mr Mears, who plans to seek re-election this year, has already foundered with another manifesto promise - to raise conveyancing fees which have plummeted through competition and the housing slump. The Master of the Rolls, Sir Thomas Bingham, told the society that a plan to introduce minimum conveyancing fees by refusing insurance to cheap firms would probably be against the law.