Pay-off timing angers new lawyers' leader

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The Independent Online
Martin Mears, the new solicitors' leader, has discovered that an pounds 80,000 golden handshake for a Law Society employee was finalised by officials the day after his election, but before he took up his post.

Mr Mears is said to be furious at being outmanoeuvred. In July he won the Society's first contested presidential contest for 40 years. He stood as an outsider, challenging the level of spending and bureaucracy in the Society establishment.

He said yesterday he would like to have been able to discuss the matter openly, but could not comment on an employee's terms and conditions.

The Law Society's ruling council will discuss the affair in secret on Thursday.

The golden-handshake payment has been promised to Veronica Lowe, 44, director of the much-criticised Solicitors' Complaints Bureau, under plans agreed with the old regime for her to leave her job and be replaced by a non-solicitor, to give a greater appearance of independence. She declined to comment last night.

Mr Mears, in his election manifesto, planned to replace the Bureau with a simple, fast-track complaints procedure within the Society.

Many rank-and-file solicitors see the Bureau as a troublemaker, encouraging clients to complain. Dissatisfied customers say it fails to adequately police the profession, which pays the pounds 11m running costs the Bureau needs to investigate 20,000 cases a year.

Ms Lowe had made a deal verbally with John Hayes, the Law Society's secretary-general, in late spring, under which she was given a year's salary of around pounds 70,000 plus an "outplacement fee" to help her find a new job thought to be worth as much as pounds 10,000. She has been in the job for five years, and can stay on until the Bureau's future is decided, which may be a year or more away.

Ms Lowe wrote to Mr Hayes in May saying she would accept the terms, but there was no official reply.

The Law Society presidency has traditionally been an uncontested succession, so that a change in figurehead has meant no change in policy.

Then, to the shock of most within the Law Society headquarters, the election in July produced a victory for Mr Mears over the official candidate, Henry Hodge.

The next day Mr Hayes wrote a letter to Ms Lowe confirming their deal. Three days later, Mr Mears took office.

Mr Mears has put the pay-off on the agenda for the confidential part of a meeting of the Society's ruling council on Thursday, but has apparently accepted that the agreement cannot be overturned.

Law Society sources said yesterday that the level of the pay-out was in line with money given to top officials who had lost their Law Society jobs in the past.

In an outspoken attack on the Bureau late last year, the National Consumer Council accused it of favouring solicitors, deterring legitimate complaints and erecting unnecessary barriers. The NCC was highly critical of delays in resolving issues, and said even the most straightforward cases often took months to resolve.