LETTERS: Balancing solicitors' needs and clients' rights

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The Independent Online
From Mr Keith Richards

Sir: The "angry" reaction of the Law Society's president, Martin Mears, to the damning Which? report from the Consumers' Association on the quality of legal advice clouds the real issue ("Consumers lay down the law on bad advice", 5 October).

There is no arguing with the central, depressing conclusion of Which?'s rigorous and comprehensive research - that solicitors too often hand out shoddy and inappropriate advice, despite a clear duty of care to clients, and the undisputed responsibility of the Law Society is to promote high standards among its members. The Consumers' Association has its own responsibility - to protect consumers and to act in their interests - and the only way to put the quality of solicitors' advice to the test was to do this anonymously, consulting the high-street professionals just as any consumer would.

All this clearly irks Mr Mears. However, in alleging that one tiny aspect of one of our standard legal answers was incorrect, he is mistaken. He claims that our researchers could not have referred a complaint to the building society ombudsman, because the ombudsman could not deal with cases earlier than June 1994. In fact, a referral was entirely possible, depending on the status of the mortgagee.

Perhaps we should not be surprised at the Law Society's invective. In a pamphlet issued before his election with his then running mate and now vice-president, Robert Sayer, Mr Mears urged a "fundamental change in attitude by the Law Society", with "less emphasis on clients' 'rights' and more on solicitors' needs". Sadly, the Law Society's reaction to the Which? report suggests that the promised "fundamental change" is already under way. But surely "solicitors' needs" include maintaining a respected and trusted profession? Without respect and trust, there is little left.

We would have been delighted to report that the majority of solicitors were giving clients best advice, and being fair and open about charges. This was not to be. Our message might not be one that Mr Mears welcomes, but a recognition of the problems of the profession, and a willingness to put the Law Society's house in order, would be more positive than "shooting the messenger".

Yours faithfully,

Keith Richards

Senior Lawyer

Consumers' Association

London, NW1