PATRICIA WYNN DAVIES
Legal Affairs Editor
A grassroots attempt to throw all 75 members of the Law Society's ruling council out of office will take place next week. The move, the latest blow to a faction- riven profession, comes from a Bournemouth solicitor, John Edge, who has been leading a campaign to bring back scale fees for house conveyancing.
Mr Edge has obtained a legal opinion from a leading QC, Michael Beloff, advising that a special general meeting, which could be forced by just 100 of the society's 66,000 solicitors, could change the organisation's by-laws to bring to an end the term of office of all or any of the members of the council.
The development is a further manifestation of the turmoil within the profession heralded by the surprise election of the anti-establishment Martin Mears as the society's president last summer. Mr Mears has set about dismantling the society's liberal image and has pledged himself to the cause of boosting the incomes of smaller solicitors' firms struggling to make a living on cut-price conveyancing during a property slump. But he and the society's vice-president, Robert Sayer have encountered deep resistance within the council.
Mr Edge has taken the reform agenda further, garnering support for a campaign for the reinstatement of scale fees, which were abolished in the early Seventies, and has used cash from a fighting fund to pay for Mr Beloff's opinion.
He has also thrown down another, separate, gauntlet by setting up with the council member Anthony Bogan a Solicitors Association with the aim of taking charge of the society's "trade union" function. The pair claim that whenever there is a conflict of interest between this and the society's regulatory role, the regulatory role always wins.
According to the society, the process Mr Edge plans to initiate next week could take two meetings, one to change the rules and another to vote on removing the council members from office. A fifth of the members at either meeting could also call for a postal ballot of the entire profession.
The process is not expected to be completed by the time of this summer's council elections, but since no candidates to oppose Mr Mears and Mr Sayer for the two top jobs have yet declared themselves, the momentum for change is unlikely to wane.
Mr Edge, who is angered by the fact that all but nine of the present council members were elected unopposed, claims that he and his supporters would win "hands down" in a postal ballot because rank and file solicitors have lost confidence in the ability of the society to represent them.
Even if they won, however, it is questionable whether scale fees, a retail price maintenance mechanism, could legally be reintroduced. Any change in solicitors' rules to bring them back would have to be shown to be in the public interest before the Office of Fair Trading would approve them. The Master of the Rolls, Lord Bingham, would also have to give his approval.
The society believes the argument is dead.
Leading article, page 18
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