An establishment questioned

A candidate's surprise withdrawal means the Law Society may get its first woman president. Sharon Wallach reports
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The Independent Online
John Young, the vice-president of the Law Society forced to stand down as presidential candidate following allegations of sexual harassment, has acknowledged the seriousness of his actions. In a letter to society council members last week, he wrote: "While there was never a case where my conduct amounted to persistent harassment, it would be equally wrong to characterise what was being alleged as trivial."

Mr Young, a senior partner with the City firm Cameron Markby Hewitt, also talked of "inaccurate reportage" of the events surrounding his resignation. This followed a conference on women lawyers earlier this month when Eileen Pembridge, a challenger in the presidential election, raised with the current president, Charles Elly, the question of the society's procedures for dealing with sexual harassment. She did not name Mr Young, but some reports suggested that she had "outed" him.

He wrote in last week's letter: "I do not criticise Eileen Pembridge in any way for having brought [my conduct] to the attention of the office- holders," adding, "I am sure that my withdrawal from the presidential election was not the result which she intended when she asked her question."

This vindication of Ms Pembridge's actions may leave the way clear for a presidential election fought on issues alone. It is the first to be contested in 40 years and could also mean the election of the first ever woman president. Earliest to put their names forward were Martin Mears, a newcomer to the council, and then Ms Pembridge. A third contender for the post has now emerged: Henry Hodge, currently deputy vice-president, who by tradition would in any event have been elected next year's vice- president, and president the following year.

The presidential race will arguably be between Mr Hodge and Ms Pembridge. Henry Hodge is generally liked and respected and has a high profile inside the profession and out. He has been on the Law Society's council since 1984 and his firm, Hodge Jones & Allen is a leading legal aid practice. His wife, Margaret, is a recently elected Labour MP who was formerly prominent in local government.

The outspoken and energetic Eileen Pembridge began her career as a UN interpreter, qualified as a solicitor in 1975 and in the same year, in partnership with one other, set up her firm, Fisher Meredith in south London, which now has 34 fee-earners.

Her election manifesto slogan is "standing up for the profession", in particular legal aid practitioners and women, but she takes care also to include measures to alleviate pressures on commercial practice. She believes, too, that an increasing alienation from the Law Society needs to be addressed.

She is a determined campaigner to achieve a higher profile for women and ethnic minorities who, she says, are "grossly under-represented" on the Law Society council and at partnership level. At a recent council meeting, Ms Pembridge's attempt to have one seat dedicated a woman's seat was heavily defeated, but she is undeterred. "The profession cannot afford or tolerate such a waste of training and talent," she says, and pledges to address this "pervasive issue" should she be elected.

As another legal aid practitioner, Henry Hodge also promises to promote the case for legal aid and "resist any changes which will harm our clients and our members". But his manifesto begins with financial matters and the determination to cut the practising certificate fee by 10 per cent.

Also high on his list are a review of the Law Society's management to remove "unnecessary layers of bureaucracy", consultation on reducing council membership by half, and increasing society revenue from non-practising certificate sources.

So far, Martin Mears has not published his manifesto. He has been on holiday in Crete during the dramas of the past weeks, which may reflect a confidence in the electoral outcome not necessarily shared by a majority of his fellow council members.

Mr Mears was elected to the council last summer on an anti-Chancery Lane platform. Since then, he has consistently attacked, both in the council chamber and in the national and legal press, examples of what he sees as the Law Society's incompetence.

He is challenging the presidency to establish the principle of democracy in the Law Society which, he says, has lost the confidence of its members, not least because it has done nothing to help the "terrible economic plight" facing the profession.

Mr Mears suffers the handicap of a - largely self-confessed - reactionary image. He is known to be sceptical about the existence of discrimination within the profession, and uses the phrase "perceived grievances". He has consistently rubbished the society's anti-discrimination rule, and at council meeting last month sought to remove the rule's sexual orientation clause.

The outcome of the election is still an open book. Eileen Pembridge acknowledges that the result is particularly difficult to gauge now that Henry Hodge has entered the scene and split the vote. She dismisses Martin Mears as having "nothing to offer in the way of leadership".

The decision is now in the hands of solicitors throughout England and Wales. Voting papers will be sent out in June, with the results due to be announced at the society's annual general meeting the following month. Meanwhile, as the last date for nominations is not until 31 May, further surprises may still be in store.