In his first week as president of the Law Society, Charles Elly's diary announced a visit to the printers of the Gazette, lunch at his Carey Street residence with various dignitaries, and attendance at the American Bar Association conference. But his most pressing task, he said, was getting into the job of being president.
Of equal importance to the dignitaries was meeting the staff of the Law Society. The president has constant contact with senior officials, but rarely meets 'the people who are equally important. I want to make them feel their presence matters as much as that of the society's members,' Mr Elly says.
Traditionally, early in the presidential year come visits to the heads of division (the most senior judges) and the Lord Chancellor. They are courtesy calls but they are also a chance to put the Law Society view.
Bearing in mind that Mr Elly has been known to confound his gentle appearance - for instance in his bitter attack on the Legal Aid Board in a recent speech to legal aid lawyers - it would be interesting to know what he intends to say to the judges.
'To the Lord Chancellor I will say that we want to see conditional fees introduced as soon as possible,' he says, 'and we want to see the cuts in legal aid eligibility restored.' He is also concerned over criticisms aimed at some solicitors of alleged abuses of the system. 'We want to work with the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Legal Aid Board to combat any fraud if it is shown to be present.'
On his presidential visit to the Lord Chief Justice, Mr Elly proposes to discuss the way in which the abolition of the right to silence will work in practice. 'I am unhappy at Parliament's decision to abolish the right. I am afraid that it may lead to miscarriages of justice.'
Mr Elly's firm, Reynolds Parry- Jones & Crawford of High Wycombe, earns about a fifth of its income from legal aid work. He himself does regular stints as a 24-hour duty solicitor.
'My experience is that many people don't tell the truth. It may be to protect a friend, or themselves - if a man has been seeing another woman, for instance, and does not want his wife to know - or they may think taking a particular line will get them out of the police station more quickly.'
He is also unsure how the abolition of the right to silence will help the police to obtain convictions. 'Juries are reluctant to convict if there has been an obviously heavy-handed investigation by the police,' he says. 'Juries do look behind the fact, despite what judges say.'
Mr Elly shares the concern of the Master of the Rolls and the Vice Chancellor over the cost of litigation. 'I would like to feel we can do something about it,' he says. 'We need to look at procedures. I would like to explore limiting the time a case takes in court, for example by placing a limit on speeches and cross-examination. Another way would be to impose an overall limit, so that the plaintiff has so many days to present his case. It may not work, but I would like us at least to look at it.' Mr Elly does not believe that cutting lawyers' fees is the answer. 'There are always arguments about the level of our income. But I don't believe overall that lawyers are overpaid for what they do.'
The new president's manifesto begins with the need to reduce the number of complaints against solicitors. More than 40 per cent of the practising certificate fee is spent on the work of the Solicitors Complaints Bureau, Mr Elly points out, but the demands do not appear to diminish. 'We must work to rid the profession of the fraudulent,' he said in his speech accepting the presidency. 'We must all look to our own practices to reduce the volume of complaints. There is a limit to what we can afford to spend on this area.'
He is not the first to state the proposition. Is it, therefore, easier said than done? He believes not. For a start, he wants to see more firms comply with practice rule 15, which demands firms operate their own complaints procedures. This, Mr Elly suggests, would remove some of the burden from the SCB's shoulders, as most complaints concern lack of communication, often over costs turning out higher than initially promised, or undue delay.
And if the Law Society's practice management standards were in place, Mr Elly believes, there would at least be less room for misunderstanding between solicitor and client. Why then, are the standards not mandatory? They would not work on that basis, he says, but adds: 'I would like firms to have the opportunity to have their standards monitored by an outside assessor, as with Investors in People, BS 5750 or legal aid franchising.' With all this in place, competition would ensure that work went to the better managed firms. The society does not intend to leave the less well prepared firms to flounder, however, and has various schemes under way, including roadshows on probate and wills and a conveyancing project.
'Overall, I do want us - the Law Society - to develop a feeling among the whole profession that they are our customers and we are offering them the services they need,' Mr Elly says. 'Solicitors may have to accept they must pay for specialist services, such as consultancy services for practice management. It can't all come within the practising certificate fee.'
Secondly, Mr Elly says, he wants to help firms to realise that the society exists to represent all firms. 'I have particular interest in the High Street firms, so I understand their needs better than those of the large multinationals. I want to help them understand what the society has done and can do, and also where it is frankly powerless. We have to accept that the society is subject to the same market rules as the rest of the country.'
Most of all, he wants to hear what concerns the profession. So his programme for the year ahead includes a series of informal Any Questions?-type sessions around the country.
Finally, his manifesto addresses raising the profession's profile in Parliament. 'If only the Government would listen, so many problems could be avoided,' he says, citing as an example the Child Support Act. 'So many of the problems that have occurred were foreseen by the society.'
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