President's Letter (April 2011)
Where have all the women gone?
As I pen my penultimate column as your President, news has just reached me from the Law Society that the ‘gender gap’ within the profession is closing. It is claimed that the proportion of practising women solicitors in the profession now stands at nearly 46% and that women account for nearly 60% of new admissions. It is also stated that the number of women holding practising certificates has risen by nearly 80% since 2000.
All well and good you may say, but sadly the increasing number of women entrants into the profession are still coming up against glass ceilings at some point in their career. Forty years on from the introduction of the Equal Pay Act, the evidence suggests that male trainees are on average offered starting salaries of 5.7% above the corresponding level for women and that the proportion of women who will reach partner level in private practice is half that of men.
Whereas a large number of women solicitors do take some time out to start a family, I for one am not convinced that increased access and passage of time will bridge this diversity gap. I am not for mandatory quotas (even for large practices) but I do wonder what women have to do to reach and remain at the top of many of our law firms.
The lack of progress by women in our profession prompts me to express (yet again) my concern about the disproportionately small number of solicitors who made Silk in the recent batch of appointments. Out of 120 appointments, only 2 were solicitors. I am told that there are 5,500 solicitors who hold rights of audience in the higher courts. The new arrangements for appointing Silks have been in place since 2005. Whereas the old system was seen as being unfair to some well qualified applicants (especially solicitors) I am beginning to have my doubts about the new system. Why not dispel my scepticism? Applications for the 2012 appointments close on 20 April 2011 so why not put your skills to the test?
Whilst on the theme of appointments, I notice that the Judicial Appointments Commission is currently running a Crime and Family Recorder competition. Sadly, by the time you read this, the closing date (31 March 2011) will have passed. However, for those of you who are fed up of private practice, the JAC are about to announce competitions for full-time District Judges in the Civil Courts and for salaried Judges in the Tribunal Courts. With annual salaries in excess of £100,000, a hefty contribution towards your pension pot and oodles of holidays, I would not blame any of you for giving up the ghost of private practice.
CRIME DOES PAY
If you practice in the Criminal Courts, all is not lost it seems. Despite public sector cutbacks, I was delighted to read that the Vale of Glamorgan Council has just served Judicial Review proceedings on the MOJ to prevent the closure of Barry Magistrates Court. The Conservative Leader, Gordon Kemp, solicitor, has decided to lead from the front, notwithstanding his Party’s decision in Government to close 93 Magistrates and 49 County Courts throughout England and Wales.
I hope that the Vale’s pockets and their steely determination will stand up to the might of Ken Clarke and his Minister, Jonathan Djanogly. If the MOJ are forced into a climb down (although it seems unlikely as their spokesman has indicated that the application will be fought all the way) or better still the Vale achieve victory in the Administrative Court, that will be a first, of which I and many of you will be proud.
Talking of firsts, you will no doubt have read that the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, has come out in favour of allowing television cameras into our courts. Neuberger’s enlightened approach follows on from similar views expressed by Lord Phillips, the Senior Judge in the Supreme Court. With both senior Judges singing from the same hymn sheet, hopefully it will not be too long before we can tune into televised cases in the Higher Courts. I am sure that our staple diet will not match the excitement that was created when O J Simpson went on trial before TV cameras in the 1990’s, However, even crusty Chancery cases may be better viewing than tuning into questions to the First Minister at the Senedd or proceedings at Hollyrood. For those of us who suffer from insomnia, even old episodes of Judge John Deed and Kavanagh QC can be mildly entertaining and you never know whether real courtroom drama may assist in the development of the careers of budding advocates.
If you have read any of my previous columns, you will (hopefully) have noticed that one of my pet topics during my year in office has been the reform of the professional indemnity market. I was pleased to note that the SRA are now giving active consideration to the Law Society’s proposals for an alternative to the assigned risks pool. Whether they will implement the promised changes before this year’s renewal, remains to be seen. Hopefully with the support of the Association of British Insurers, they will, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Wheels turn slowly at the SRA and I doubt that they will have the stomach or, for that matter, the resources to introduce whole scale changes in the PI market and the regulation of ABS’s at the same time in October 2011.
The Legal Services Commission has just announced that it is unwilling to agree a structured compensation package for those firms that incurred losses in the 2010 Family Law Tender. I cannot see any justification for their defence of such claims.
However, it seems that the profession’s campaign against the feared cutbacks in the Legal Aid budget is beginning to cause some people to sit up and listen. The Government, it seems have conceded that their initial impact assessment had wholly underestimated the number of people who would be denied access to Civil Legal Aid if the cutbacks that were proposed are introduced. Justice Minister Djanogly, has not fallen on his sword as yet but the signs so far do give rise to some hope that the cuts may not be as harsh as first envisaged.
I hope that as many of you as can will support the Society by turning out at this year’s 125th Anniversary Dinner at the City Hall on 13 May 2011. As always, it will be a splendid occasion and once I deliver my President’s message, I hope it will be a memorable occasion for me as well!