Citation, etc.

Part of SOLICITORS (AMENDMENT) BILL [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th July 1974.

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Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Warley West 12:00 am, 4th July 1974

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. At least we do not seem to be in disagreement on the facts. It is not comparing like with like, however, to compare complaints against solicitors with complaints of maladministration within the jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Commissioner. But I wholly agree with most of what my hon. Friend said.

The story of the Bill began when the Law Society found it necessary to increase fees for practising certificates. Had the Law Society not found it necessary, the Bill would never have come before the House. There is no mystery about the reason why the society needed to increase its fees. Inflation is no respecter of persons or institutions. I have received, and I know that the Law Society has received, various representations on the Law Society's financial position. I can assure the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) that I have looked at the matter quite closely. The intention is that any increase in fees will be decided by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls. It will not be at the whim of the Council of the Law Society, even if the council were thought to have whims. I am satisfied that there is a need.

I have had all sorts of possible alternatives suggested to me. It has even been pointed out that the Law Society occupies valuable premises. I think that their value was included in the figure for the reserve fund to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It would not be a solution to the problem to sell the premises from which the whole business is conducted. What is at issue is the uncommitted liquid reserves. It is true that there is now a liquid reserve, but that position is deteriorating and it is estimated that by 1975, if there were no increase, there would be a financial crisis, because the reserves are falling at an alarming rate. It would not help anyone if the Law Society could not fulfil its proper statutory functions on behalf of the public as well as of solicitors.

There has been a great deal of discussion of what part of the expenditure of the Law Society should be met by income from practising certificate fees—that is, from the profession generally—and what proportion should be met from membership fees, which is simply from those members of the profession who choose to join the Law Society. Clearly there is a need to ensure that practising certificate fees do not bear a disproportionate part of the total expenditure, which is one reason why the matter is decided by the Lord Chancellor and his fellow judges. They have the accounts required by Section 11 of the Act of 1957. They also have the society's accounts, which are laid before the society each year, and they call for such other evidence as they think fit.

I should say in fairness that the two sources of income are not paid into two separate funds but are paid into one fund, and the Law Society has to try from time to time to apportion the expenditure according to which items of expenditure should properly be met from which source. In some cases it is a fairly clear dividing line. Clearly the club facilities, as it were, should be met from membership subscriptions. The expenditure on such matters as professional purposes, education, training, discipline, law reform and discussions on the future of the profession should be borne by the profession as a whole. There are, however, other matters in between where there would be room from debate. It is for that reason that in the past it has not been the practice to publish the apportionment.

I have been shown figures, and the hon. Member may be pleased to know that it is now proposed to publish some of those calculations. It is intended that in this week's Law Society's Gazette there shall be an article by the Treasurer which will show some of them. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman may be able to set the minds of his constituents at rest to that extent.

The Law Society required this legislation. Some of my hon. Friends saw opportunities to discuss the affairs of the profession. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) pointed out, there will not be a precisely similar opportunity again to discuss the affairs of the profession. We spent time in Committee discussing what might be a way of ensuring that the House discussed those affairs from time to time.

It is fair to point out that the fact that there will not be another requirement to increase practising certificate fees does not mean that the Law Society will not require to come before the House again. In the rapidly changing conditions of modern society about which we have been talking there may be a number of occasions when the society will require to come before the House. It might be helpful if we could build in some constitutional process by which we could ensure that there will be periodical discussions.

One of the matters that we have discussed is the possibility of a Select Committee. I discovered quite a lot about the history of Select Committees in the process of conducting my discussions. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West contributed to a debate in the House on 12th November 1970 when the Green Paper entitled "Select Committees of the House of Commons" was debated. I noted some of the suggestions which my hon. Friend then made. I also made some inquiries into the recommendations of the Select Committee on Procedure that sub-committees be introduced on law and order and public safety. All I can say at the moment is that discussions are continuing. I do not rule out anything, but obviously there are all sorts of difficulties of which my hon. Friends will be aware. You were kind enough to warn me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that if I trespassed much further into that matter I should find myself out of order.

I believe that our discussions on the Bill have been helpful. We have been discussing ways of ensuring an element of public participation as well as the protection of the public. From discussions on earlier Bills there emerged proposals which have been included in this Bill. And it has itself changed in the course of our debates. I believe that it has changed for the better.

I believe that both the public and the legal profession have reason to be grateful for the debates we have had and for the suggestions which have been made. My hon. Friends were very kind about the part that I was permitted to play in those debates. I pay tribute to the discussions which we have had, which I believe took place in a constructive and good-tempered atmosphere. I express my gratitude to the hon. and learned Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers) and his hon. Friends, to my hon. Friends and to the Law Society, which considered what was said readily and helpfully.

The history books may not accord us all our proper deserts, but I believe they may record that we played a small part in a valuable process. I commend the Bill to the House.