Law: Once-closed doors are opened: The public are now allowed into solicitors' disciplinary tribunals, says Robert Verkaik

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Lawyers have always claimed that the principle of openness is the cornerstone of British justice. But even while they insisted that courts should be open to the public, the doors to their own tribunals remained firmly closed, leading to accusations of double standards.

But the charge must now be dropped against at least one area of the legal profession. Earlier this month, solicitors opened up their disciplinary tribunals to public scrutiny.

Legal glasnost has been a long time in coming. Doctors, dentists, chemists, opticians, vets and nurses already allow the public into their hearings into professional misconduct. At 10am on 1 March solicitors followed suit. The beginning of this new era of openness was marked by the presence of just one journalist.

The two cases - a solicitor who had failed to respond to letters from the Solicitors Complaints Bureau, and another who had not kept proper business accounts - was hardly legal history in the making, but the principle was established.

The solicitors' disciplinary tribunal was created by the 1974 Solicitors Act, so why has it taken so long to go public?

Sue Elson, a solicitor herself, is the clerk to the tribunal. She explains: 'It was a matter the tribunal considered for a long period of time, and it was felt appropriate (to allow the press and public access) in the current climate of openness. It was the tribunal's decision, supported by the Law Society.'

Mrs Elson believes the tribunal already does an 'exceptionally good job in very difficult circumstances. If they were seen to do it, it could only enhance the reputation of the solicitors' profession, and public confidence therein. I think the difficulty has always been that there is a perception by the public that lawyers close ranks.'

A solicitor who finds themself in front of the tribunal can expect to be prosecuted in something akin to a mini criminal trial. The burden of proof is beyond reasonable doubt, but the rules of evidence are more relaxed.

Hearings are not covered by legal aid, so solicitors have to pay for their own representation. Some rely on the free services of solicitor or barrister colleagues.

Mrs Elson points out that unlike other professions who have established internal committees to judge professional misconduct in public, the solicitors' disciplinary tribunal is a statutory body independent from the Law Society.

Last year, the Solicitors Complaints Bureau received 21,000 complaints - 4,000 up on the previous year. The public seems to feel there is plenty to complain about. Now they will be able to see for themselves how the more serious of these complaints are dealt with.

A system that filters out unfounded prosecutions - those that do not establish a prima facie case - protects solicitors from public hearings of malicious and gratuitous allegations. For those solicitors whose cases are heard in public, there will, of course, be the inevitable bad publicity generated by press coverage.

Erring barristers, however, are still able to keep their names out of the newspapers. Complaints against barristers are rising - last year, 347 complaints were made, compared to 211 in 1988 - but the Bar - 'the pool of excellence' from which judges, who established the principle of open justice, are largely drawn - remains closed.

Secret hearings conducted behind closed doors add to the Bar's stuffy image, believes Makbool Javaid, the chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers. Mr Javaid maintains that both the solicitors' and barristers' professional bodies are 'highly discretionary' as to when they act.

'The procedures are not very clear, there are no guidelines,' he says. 'And when dealing with ethnic minorities, there is a greater willingness to act. We don't have any insight into the factors taken into account when these decisions are made. The Solicitors Complaints Bureau is very touchy about this, and about giving us any statistics of the ethnic breakdown (of disciplinary tribunal defendants).'

Greater openness would perhaps make these criticisms easier to defend, but a spokesman for the Bar Council, defending the practice of closed tribunals, says: 'We don't take a strong view. There are arguments both ways. One argument against openness is where you have a professional accused of a heinous offence at the tribunal which is reported, and of which he is later found innocent, yet his reputation may nevertheless be damaged.'

This argument, however, has not deterred other professional bodies, for example the General Medical Council. It relies on professional journalists reporting the whole proceedings, including a not guilty verdict, or the result of a successful appeal.

The chairman of the Bar Council, Robert Seabrook QC, takes the 'strong personal view' that 'proceedings in this day and age must be open and subject to public scrutiny.' To this end, he set up a standards review body, chaired by Lord Alexander of Weedon QC, whose task is to evaluate the Bar's complaints procedure.

'It's a matter of urgency,' Mr Seabrook says. 'One of the reasons I set up this body was to ensure we have a modern complaints system.'

The review body is distributing a consultative paper and will make its final report by late summer. Even if, as is widely expected, it does recommend open disciplinary hearings, there will be some who will view it as yet another case of the Bar reforming later, rather than sooner.

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