Donal Blaney is the Chief Executive of the Young Britons’ Foundation and Senior Partner in Griffin Law, a niche litigation firm.
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher put pay to compulsory trades union membership and the abuse of the political levy. In the 1990s, John Major ended compulsory membership of students’ unions (although he baulked at requiring students actively to opt in). While freedom of assembly is a protected right, so likewise is the presumption that membership of organisations is and should only ever be voluntary.
I am a solicitor – one of 118,000 in England & Wales. Like my colleagues, I am required by law to pay a compulsory levy for the privilege of being a member of the legal profession. Last year it was in the region of £1,000. I have no choice whether or not to pay this fee. It is a compulsory levy.
Yesterday I, along with my fellow solicitors, received an email from the Law Society entitled “Fight for Justice”. It was, it said, “devoted to the Law Society’s campaign to defend access to justice”. The goal of the email was to help to “increase awareness of the devastating effect that the government’s proposed legal aid cuts will have on society and the rule of law”.
Engaging in scare tactics worthy of Ed Balls, the Law Society’s email continued by crying, in bold text and in capital letters, “THE GOVERNMENT IS PLANNING CUTS THAT WILL DENY MILLIONS OF PEOPLE ACCESS TO JUSTICE. DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN. SOUND OFF FOR JUSTICE”.
The Law Society’s email directs solicitors to download a toolkit, to sign a petition and goes on to exclaim: “This campaign is an opportunity for solicitors to come together to shout out that access to justice must remain available to everyone, not just to those with the means to pay” – which rather begs the question as to whether the email’s author has ever heard of conditional fee agreements, third party funding or legal expenses insurance.
I clicked through to read the wording of the petition. It is the emotive, partisan nonsense that I feared it would be, culminating in the self-righteous whine: “I’m sounding off for justice before millions are silenced in court”. Why not go the whole hog and accuse Ken Clarke of “being worse than Hitler”. That’s the maturity level of the campaign, after all.
The petition website listed a number of organisations that supported the campaign. Under “partners” it stated “Justice For All”, which is defined on its website as “a coalition of over 3,000 charities, legal and advice agencies, politicians, trade unions, community groups and members of the public”. Alongside the usual collection of taxpayer-funded lobby groups are those fair-minded, politically unbiased paragons of virtue known as the TUC and Unite.
So let me get this straight. I am required by law to be a member of the Law Society and to pay a compulsory levy of some £1,000 a year if I wish to practice as a solicitor. Part of that involuntary levy is being applied towards a political campaign co-funded and backed by organisations, including trades unions, which fund the Labour Party.
Justice For All plans a “day of action” for 3 June. The Law Society encouraged its members to take part in the March for the Alternative on 26 March 2011 (yes, that March for the Alternative). Its Junior Lawyers Section invited solicitors to “help us select the best protest songs to include on the day”. Listed among those songs in an online survey – I kid you not – were Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” and the Manic Street Preachers’ “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”.
The Law Society has decided to go toe to toe with the government. Actions have consequences. If the Law Society wishes to continue to have the power to compel solicitors to pay a compulsory levy and to force solicitors to join a closed shop then with that power comes responsibility and the need to exercise judgment. Both are absent.
The government should end this closed shop once and for all. And if the Law Society wants to play politics with other people’s money, it should raise it other than from the compulsory practising certificate fee.