“Events, dear boy”, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is reputed to have answered a reporter who asked, in the wake of a landslide General Election win, what could possibly knock his Government off course. He was right.
Last month I referred, among other things, to the profession’s “new found unity” in relation to legal aid, built up during the protests against the Scottish Government’s bill dealing with contributions in summary criminal cases. Even before the issue hit the streets, events had sunk that unity as effectively as the iceberg did the Titanic
The weeks since have seen a war of words as the Society and its Legal Aid Negotiating Team attempted to repel the onslaught from defence solicitors alleging a sell-out over the acceptance of the package of amendments negotiated with the Government. The two sides remain far apart over who knew what and when about the faculties’ views, and whether the Society was too compliant with Government deadlines. The extended President’s column this month is devoted to that very subject.
Some of the criticisms levelled at the individuals who currently happen to make up LANT have been over the top, with little regard for the commitment they have shown to trying to achieve a better deal. Yet in the light of the reported feedback from the faculties, the sentiments of the rank and file are entirely understandable. It does seem to me that the Society seriously underestimated the level of opposition to the package. Nor was it likely to go down well to say that it was judged to be for members' own good to accept, especially when the dominant opinion is revealed as the reverse.
Lessons need to be learned, and quickly, given the imminence of Government/SLAB proposals on contracting. In response to the questions posed by the Glasgow and Edinburgh Bar Associations, the Society is now seeking to engage with local bodies and members to achieve a clearer structure for briefing and supporting the negotiating team, along with better channels of communication. All with an interest should respond.
There is another question that has to be faced. Assume, once a new model is agreed and put in place, that the message fed back from members clearly favours one course of action. What weight will that have in the Society’s own decision making process? This whole issue has blown up around the Society’s representation role, and the answer to that question could be critical to its future.