The Brief of The Times

Robert Bourns, the Law Society president, recently advocated shifting the burden in employment tribunal cases from employees having to prove employment rights to employers having to prove compliance.

In doing so Bourns appeared to urge a fundamental change in employment law – he even argued that tribunal fees reduce the ability of workers to enforce employment rights. These are significant political issues.

Years ago I served on the society’s council membership committee. Its terms of reference were to ensure that the council was truly representative of all solicitors.

Thousands of us are employers and believe that employment law is weighted in favour of employees. By pursuing claims of doubtful merit an impecunious employee can force an employer to incur costs exceeding £100,000, which the employer cannot hope to recover. If tribunal fees have discouraged some applicants from bringing hopeless cases, that is a positive development.

This point suggests that the DNA of the Law Society has mutated – and not improved. Once, its specialist committees were told that their role was to clarify the law, not to change it. There was no place for political activism.

Now the society’s governance is under review and the president has called for input from members. Constructive responses are more likely if a few questions are addressed.

Sir David Clementi’s mid-2000s review of the regulation of the English legal profession resulted in the formation of the Legal Services Board and the creation of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. How has the Law Society of Scotland retained public confidence and continued as the regulator of Scottish solicitors?

The Law Society has delegated regulatory functions to the SRA, which technically remains a part of Chancery Lane. Does the society’s remuneration committee control salaries of the senior management at the SRA?

The society asks solicitors for examples of unnecessary regulation and ways to simplify regulatory processes. Is that compatible with its shareholding in Riliance, which has a vested commercial interest in complex professional regulation?

The hallmark of a profession is that clients’ interests take precedence over practitioners’ commercial interests. The Law Society is becoming less professional and more commercial. Training that was free is now a profit centre.

Last November the competition appeal tribunal heard a claim that the society had abused its dominant position by insisting that law firms purchase its own training sessions to maintain accreditation with its conveyancing quality scheme. Judgment is awaited. How much has already been spent? What is the potential exposure?

Commercial motives led the Law Society to take a majority stake in Veyo, the failed conveyancing portal joint venture, which resulted in a loss of up to £12 million. What went wrong?

Many questions remain unanswered. The Law Society’s strategy for the future is hard to understand.

Ronnie Fox is the founder of Fox, a law firm in the City of London