The debate over next year's practising certificate fee is reaching a crescendo ahead of Thursday's AGM.
Published comment in support of David Flint's motion for a budget based on a PC fee of £400 has basically fallen into two categories – a general allegation that the Society is inefficiently run, and a general desire to hit out at the Society for perceived past failings (the "What has it done for me?" approach).
Both are easy things to say, but what is the record? OK, I may be close to the Society (though not of it), but I have at least seen the recent Council debates on the annual budget and the fees to be asked of members.
The Society knows only too well that (a) it is heavily dependent on membership fees for the bulk of its income, and (b) despite the practising certificate being compulsory to practise as a solicitor, for a sizeable proportion of members that label is not in fact essential to the work they do, and it would be possible for them to opt out. So any suggestion that the Society has not scrutinised its spending very carefully is well wide of the mark. (Particularly so with last year's abortive office relocation, the whole point of which was to avoid having to spend money on maintaining their present unsuitable premises, until the project was sunk at a late stage by the property market collapse.)
As for the grievance factor, it seems naive to say the least to argue that because the current situation regarding, say, legal aid fees or home reports is not what the profession as represented by the Society has argued for, therefore the Society has not been doing its job. If that followed, then every solicitor who lost a court case would be open to the same allegation. A £400-based budget would most likely oblige the Society to look first at performing its specific regulatory duties rather than promoting members' interests on a wider front – are we not in danger of entering a vicious circle there?
As for the actual amount of the cut – roughly equivalent to next year's Complaints Commission levy – consider that the Commission's budget for 2009-10 is a shade under £3 million for doing only part of the work undertaken by the Society's Client Relations Office in 2008-09, yet the CRO's costs according to the draft accounts, combining employment costs and other expenses, amounted to £1,766,000. Others have reportedly described the £400 figure as "arbitrary" and it is hard to disagree.
Money talks, but solicitors should vote with the head rather than the heart on Thursday.