Law Society gripped by election fever

Poll/ decorum lapses
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The Independent Online
VOTING papers will go out this week to the Law Society's 64,000 solicitors, inviting them to choose a president from among three candidates, one of whom has been called a "homophobe", another a "loony leftie", and the third an "Establishment leftist".

Instead of the decorous election atmosphere one might expect, there has been vituperation to a high degree: shouts of "loathsome reactionary", "defeatism", "no-can-doism","bigotry", "sexual harassment", and "lunacy".

One reason is that the election is the first contested for 40 years; another, that the kind of malaise in which the profession is enmired - unpopularity, shortage of work, legal-aid scandals - is bound to produce distasteful symptoms. A third is sex.

Sex raised its ambiguous head early in the election process. Traditionally, it has been "Buggins' turn" for the one-year presidency, which involves attending dinners, pressing flesh, occupying a flat in Carey Street, and preserving the dignity of an august society. This year was to be the turn of John Young. But as he reached for the prize he faltered.

Accusations were made that he had made Eileen Pembridge, one of the eight women on the society's 75-strong council, the object of his unwanted attentions. Ms Pembridge, 51, suggested to society office-holders that he be urged to step aside. She was told that Mr Young, a married man, had promised not to do it again, and that to deny him the presidency would "thwart the democratic process". So she "outed" him, causing him to withdraw, and decided to run for the presidency herself.

Because Ms Pembridge had rocked the boat, the council promoted instead Henry Hodge, also 51, who is part bien-pensant "Islington Person", part Establishment Man. A country lawyer, Martin Mears, 55, had already entered the race. The fur flew.

Ms Pembridge specialises in family law and legal aid at her south London offices, and is an intriguing mixture of fashion-conscious professional (her best-known client was Sonia Sutcliffe, wife of the "Yorkshire Ripper" whom she advised on libel), and weekend ascetic. She, her solicitor husband and seven-year-old child often flee to a spartan dwelling in the New Forest, to live rough. Her confrontations with the Lord Chancellor over legal-aid policy have been tough. She told him: "You don't know what it's really like to be in a legal-aid practice. You don't seem to realise that every time you attack legal aid, our bank managers ring us up and say, 'Why should we give you an overdraft?' " Lord Mackay, she said, "looked taken aback".

Martin Mears has described her as a "loony leftie", but he has strong views about most things, among them what he sees as the Law Society's capitulation to "gay propaganda". Described in New Law Journal as "part Ross Perot, part Forrest Gump", he runs his practice from Great Yarmouth, lives in an 18th-century rectory north of Beccles, and has fathered seven children.

The rectory and its grounds have a lived-in look. In his study magazines and newspaper clippings are strewn around and Paul Johnson (Birth of the Modern) jostles for shelf space with Kurt von Schuschnigg (Farewell Austria). He expects to be criticised as a "backwoodsman whose opinions are very dubious".

"Henry Hodge's difficulty is that he's an Islington left-winger, a handicap at the moment. The line he takes is that he's close to Establishment circles, which is code for 'I know Tony [Blair], and if you vote for me I'll get things done. But Mr Blair won't be prime minister for a year or two, by which time Henry's term of office - if he wins - will have expired." As for Ms Pembridge, "Eileen has only one campaign theme: 'I am a woman.' "

Henry Hodge is perhaps most famous for being the husband of Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP and former Islington council leader. Tall, with an easy-going manner, he seemed relaxed in his Islington home (saloon-bar mirror over a fireplace; grandfather clock in a corner; rowing-machine against the wall).

Mr Mears, he said, had put the cause of solicitors before the cause of clients, and was "dragging us into some kind of mire". Of Ms Pembridge, he said: "Her programme seems fairly limited. She's all right, Eileen. She's just . . ." and failed to find the word.

Last month, a poll of the profession had Mr Hodge and Mr Mears neck and neck and Ms Pembridge a few points behind. The election result will be announced next month.