Tuesday, March 04, 2008

English Law Society faces battle with QCs - couldn't happen in Scotland ?

Unusually the Law Society south of the border is facing a legal battle to publish parts of its code it had originally given consent to be published, then withdrew ...

The Times reports :

QCs battle against the Law Society

Frances Gibb, Legal Editor of The Times

The delicious spectacle of dog eat dog — two QCs pitched against the Law Society in the courts — looks as if it will settle, thus avoid an embarrassing dispute.

In the legal action Andrew Hopper and Gregory Treverton-Jones last month issued proceedings in the High Court against the solicitors’ professional body.

Mr Hopper, who is also a solicitor and was the first solicitor-advocate outside the City of London, and Mr Treverton-Jones are both — among other things — specialists in professional regulation, defending solicitors against complaints about their conduct. The pair have written The Solicitors Handbook, a guide to the detailed rules solicitors now have to comply with. As part of the book they wanted to reproduce the full text of the solicitors’ code of conduct that came into force last July.

And here is where the dispute arises. The QCs sought permission from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), which is responsible for rules of conduct in the profession, regulation and training. An SRA official told the men’s publishers, LexisNexis Butterworths, that they could go ahead.

Then, having written the book, the authors were informed by the Law Society that they did not have permission after all and could use only extracts of the code.

As Andrew Hopper put it: “We appeared to be caught in a power struggle between the SRA, which supports us and wants the book published in the interests of good regulation, and the commercial people at the Law Society, who see it as competition for their own publications.”

It is ironic, he added, that the handbook was written “from the defence perspective, to help solicitors to understand the rules of their regulator and how everything works. The prosecuting authority wants it published — but the ‘trade union’ wants to suppress it.”

There is nothing like a wrangle between lawyers. At least they have the best advice at their disposal. The pair brought in Herbert Smith, the City law firm, acting “no win, no fee”, together with a prominent member of the Bar on the same basis. Proceedings were served.

This week they applied for summary judgment in the High Court, asking for an order that the Law Society, which owns the copyright, permit them to reprint the code of conduct, a crucial element of the book.

But today it looks as if behind-the-scenes negotiations may produce a settlement beneficial to both sides. The QCs declined to comment “having regard to discussions taking place between the parties”. A spokesman said: “It is understood that it is likely that the dispute will shortly be resolved amicably in a manner that will enable the handbook to be published in the near future.”

Des Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, said: “We are working to try to find a mechanism to settle this matter amicably.” Meanwhile, though, the pair have not withdrawn proceedings and the society is still defending them.

It maintains that the SRA had no authority to give a licence for the code to be published. Mr Hudson said: “What we have said all along is that clearly there is a significant difference as to what happened here and the legal implications. But if we can find a way to resolve it, we shall do.”

Some say that the case exposes the fundamental tension between the two limbs of the Law Society now that it has split its regulatory functions from its representative ones. The latter, of course, needs to be mindful of maximising its income — such as from commercial activities — when in the not too distant future solicitors will be able to choose whether or not to subscribe to support it.

Mr Hudson strongly disagrees. But he does concede that “the Law Society and the SRA are at different points in this process of change and the Law Society is facing different financial circumstances, post-Clementi. They have a different set of issues facing them and it is not surprising, therefore, that financial matters are not as high up the agenda as they are at the Law Society.”

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