The problem of democracy

After years of making its decisions nice and quietly, the Law Society is being rocked by a sudden discovery of the ballot. Fiona Bawdon reports
Can a membership organisation be too democratic? The Law Society is in the process of finding out. It has just had an unprecedented second election for its presidency - during which the maverick Martin Mears (who let the democracy genie out of the bottle) was ousted by the "establishment" candidate, Tony Girling.

Before Mears' election last year, the society had been largely untroubled by meaningful elections or the trappings of democracy. Each year, its 75-strong council would decide among itself who was the man (as it invariably was) for the job.

All that has now changed - possibly forever. As a former president, Mark Sheldon, remarked in a generous valedictory speech, say what you like about Martin Mears but "he used the democratic process to the full." Even those who were originally outraged at Mears' audacity now concede that he gave the society a much-needed "kick up the backside," as one council member put it.

The problem is, however, that others even more maverick than Mears are following suit - and the Law Society is remarkably vulnerable to such an assault of democracy. Under its regulations it is extremely easy for a tiny number of malcontents - out of a profession of 60,000 - to force a ballot.

In the past, of course, it didn't matter what the regulations said - either because no one ever read them or because they knew enough to keep their place.

Not any more. Disgruntled solicitors are now making it their business to be fully aware of the rules and are prepared to use them to the full. At last week's agm, for example, a motion to split the Law Society into two - one half dealing with regulation, the other with its trade union functions - was heavily defeated.

That was exactly the issue on which a third presidential candidate, Anthony Bogan, had stood and lost in the election that saw Girling elected. However, there were enough of Bogan's supporters at the agm to garner the 20 votes needed to force a postal ballot on the issue.

Therefore, having just spent a campaign grant of pounds 7,500 proving that there is no support for splitting the society, Bogan and co are now about to spend another pounds 35,000 of the professionals' money - the cost of a postal ballot - to prove it all over again. The exercise is likely to make the pounds 6 it costs for each vote Bogan secured in the election - 1,287 in total, compared with 15,911 for Girling and 14,239 for Mears - seem like a bargain.

It is also surprisingly easy - as both Mears and Bogan have proven - to stand for the presidency. There is no limit to how many of the 75 council members can put themselves forward (and claim their pounds 7,500 grant), nor to the number of times they can have a go. A member needs the backing of just three other solicitors to stand - and there is no minimum qualifying period on the council.

Mears - who had been a council member for just a year before becoming president - concedes that he was hindered to some extent by his "naivety."

Might he have made a better president and achieved more real reform had he been forced to serve, say, just one more year before running for the top office?

This problem of the surfeit of democracy is one that will need delicate handling politically. There may be real dangers in going too far the other way.

For example, the rule that just 100 signatures are needed to force a special general meeting - at a cost of pounds 20,000-pounds 30,000 - might seem too lax. But this provision has been used to good effect in the past. In 1992 it proved an extremely powerful way of showing that the society had underestimated the hostility of the profession to standard fees for magistrates court criminal work.

In the event, even without tackling this potentially explosive issue, Girling and his team are likely to be kept busy - dealing with the legal aid White Paper, Lord Woolf's reforms of civil justice, the ever-present problem of cut-price conveyancing, as well as tackling internal Law Society issues.

In all of this, Girling at least will not be hamstrung by "naivety" over the workings of the society, as he has been a council member for 16 years. This fact allowed Mears, with some justification, to portray him as Buggins made flesh during the campaign, but it may also, ironically, mean that he can achieve more than Mears ever could.

"The council, on the whole, are on his side - and it is a council which has belatedly recognised what kind of mandate a president can have. He also has the staff to a certain extent," says one insider. Girling will inspire more support not just because he has been around longer, but because, where Mears had a "siege mentality," Girling's style is more "inclusive," he adds.

Even before formally taking over as president, Girling was already displaying his more conciliatory approach. He invited Mears' defeated running-mate, Robert Sayer - last year's vice-president - to take the key role of deputy treasurer. Girling is, he says, reluctant to lose the expertise and knowledge of society finances which Sayer, who spent much of last year trawling through its accounts, has built up. "Much of what he's been saying is very valid," says Girling.

Such magnanimity does not extend to Mears - at least not yet. "It depends whether he demonstrates a supportive attitude as past president. If he does, there are various aspects of our programme on which he could be a real help. If he is going to want to detach himself and be critical, it will be very difficult for us to use him," says Girling.

So far, the signals on what line Mears will take are mixed. At the agm he too sounded a conciliatory note, urging that in future Law Society squabbling be kept "within the family." However, the day before, two newspaper articles appeared in which he blamed variously "the feminists" and young solicitors, for his downfall. "Why should the young, of all people, vote for caution, stasis, the old, discredited establishment?" he wrote in the Telegraph.

At least some Law Society insiders are braced for more of the same. Mears has clearly relished the profile that being president gave him and it seems unlikely that he will want to give it up.

The media is, however, only likely to continue to offer him an outlet for his writings if he continues, as one of those on the receiving end of past attacks puts it, "to dip his pen in vitriol."