LEADING ARTICLE : A dinosaur at the Law Society

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The Independent Online
Teachers do it at Easter. Accountants do it when Gordon Brown provokes them. Solicitors do it every time Martin Mears opens his loud mouth. Professionals making fools of themselves in public do not make an edifying sight. Recent goings-on at the Law Society have made solicitors appear unable to run the proverbial whelk stall let alone a trustworthy high-street legal services business. Are we really to let these people manage our house purchases, our wills, our divorces when in their own sphere they behave so badly? If a reformist government were to replay Mrs Thatcher's attack on legal vested interests, it would find - this time - a lot more support for root-and-branch changes in the delivery of legal services and possibly (serve the solicitors right) a lot more support for preserving the barristers' specialism.

Mr Mears is a protectionist dinosaur. His election ticket promised higher conveyancing fees, a curb on numbers and less independence for the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau. Accomplishing that would have meant a revolution in public policy for legal services and Mr Mears has failed to turn the clock back. Indeed, he is now under assault from the grass roots for failing to deliver on conveyancing fees - in other words, forcing the public to pay more.

Instead, Mr Mears has succeeded only in demolishing the society's permanent secretariat. Senior staff have been driven out. Able lawyers on the profession's radical wing, such as Henry Hodge, who stood against Mr Mears last year, are quitting the Law Society's council.

Mr Mears has played to the gallery. He has won himself headlines with his attacks on the "discrimination industry" and political correctness. When he has turned his mind to matters of policy, it has been to bring back as many restrictive practices as possible from the past, pick damaging fights with consumer groups and make a counter-productive intervention in the debate on divorce reform. He has, in short, sought to be the most restricted form of professional reactionary.

Yet this was the "reformist" who won a measure of sympathy last summer for his criticism of the cosy establishment running the Law Society. Now he has become an embarrassment. For some solicitors, buoyed by expectations that Tony Girling, the current deputy vice-president, will stand, such a contest could not come a moment too soon.