Leading Article: Why the law should study medicine

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The Independent Online
Once upon a time this was a country fit for solicitors. From Georgian terraces in small towns and suites of offices in the City, Britain's solicitors plied their respectable trade, protected from the full rigours of competition by a statutory monopoly and kept nicely afloat by fixed fees on such activities as conveyancing.

Then came the Seventies, and one by one the props were knocked from under the profession. First the fixed scale of fees for conveyancing was done away with, allowing those involved in house sales and purchases to shop around. Then fee levels were driven down by the abolition of the solicitor's monopoly on conveyancing. Times became hard.

Enter this week the voice of the Georgian terrace, Martin Mears, newly elected president of the Law Society. Writing in the Law Society Gazette, Mr Mears argues that low fees are leading to shoddy work. And he has a cunning plan. Since shoddy work is bound eventually to lead to claims against the society's indemnity fund, he says, why not charge higher premiums to those solicitors who work for the lowest fees? Then they'll put their fees up.

Mr Mears's argument is very worrying for two reasons. The first is his equation of low costs with poor service. The second is his suggestion that much current work is indeed shoddy (or, in his words, "cutting corners").

The idea that poor practice stems primarily from low return is an old trade union classic. It completely ignores such difficult ideas as efficiency and provides alibis for the incompetent and workshy. Such an egregious piece of special pleading would not seem out of place were Mr Mears general secretary, say, of the National Union of Solicitors, Conveyancers and Allied Operatives. But he isn't. The Law Society not only represents solicitors, but it also regulates the profession in the interests of the consumer. The consumer is most certainly not well served by his arguments.

But this does not mean that Mr Mears is wrong and that all is well. As the National Consumer Council said on Monday, Mr Mears's comments suggest that there may indeed be a problem. The trouble is that it is to the same Law Society to which we would look to put things right.

There is an answer. The legal profession should follow the example of the medical profession and divide the functions of the Law Society between two different bodies. One could ape the British Medical Association and represent the views of the professionals. The other would act for the consumer, regulate the profession itself and make recommendations and comment about practice, in the manner of the General Medical Council.

Until this happens we will never really know who speaks for them and who for us.