HC Deb 17 July 1985 vol 83 cc389-403

10.—(1) The Board shall keep proper accounts of all sums received or paid by it and proper records to those accounts.

(2) The Board shall appoint auditors to the Board, each of whom shall be a member of one or more relevant bodies of accountants.

(3) The Board shall cause their accounts to be audited annually by the auditors to the Board; and, as soon as is practicable after the accounts for any period have been audited, the Board shall cause them to be published and shall send a copy of them to the Lord Chancellor together with a copy of any report of the auditors thereon.'.

Mr. Brown

On Second Reading and in Committee the Opposition made clear their view that part I was inadequate for its purpose. We are conscious of the improvements that the Government have made and we have taken care to draft the new clause so that we can retain the benefits of part I as it stands. The problem is that all the major anomalies which were pointed out on Second Reading remain. Part I will not deal with the widespread public dissatisfaction with the present system. The largest single grievance is that the legal profession controls the mechanism for dealing with complaints against it. The National Consumer Council's MORI poll revealed that only 3 per cent. of those polled thought that this was satisfactory. No matter what hon. Members feel about the accuracy of opinion polls, one would have to allow for a wide margin of error to interpret 3 per cent. in favour as a vote of confidence in the status quo.

The new clause meets the point by setting up an independent body to deal with complaints. It will be professionally serviced by its own staff. The legal profession will have an important voice in its functioning. We are not anti the profession, but the solicitors will not control this body. Thus, the public's objections will be met and the profession's reputation will be enhanced, because the public will have confidence in the complaints system.

The public's second major grievance against the present mechanism is over the confusing variety of avenues of complaint. The intractable nature of the complaints procedure and the tremendous obstacles faced in securing any financial remedy for a grievance will combine to make the ordinary complainant feel that the legal profession is ganging up against him. The new clause provides a focus for complaints and the possibility of redress.

It is difficult for a citizen to obtain advice and help when trying to come to grips with the negligence of his solicitor, and we provide for that. It is useless to point to the existence of the voluntary negligence panels. The Law Society has not bothered to monitor their performance, so we do not know how effective they have been. I have the experience of my constituents, whom I have tried to help, to guide me. My attitude is shaped by my practical experiences of the profession in Newcastle upon Tyne. I have no doubt that complainants are given the run around when they try to complain about solicitors. Whether that is the intention, or whether the present system makes it almost inevitable, I am not able to say. This injustice must be stopped, and our amendment does that.

If the abuse is not remedied now, public pressure, and perhaps a change of Government—or at least a change of Lord Chancellor—will make the pressure for reform later almost inevitable. The new clause is based on the Solicitors (Independent Complaints Procedure) Bill which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs). I pay tribute to his pioneering work, which is very much appreciated not just by those who have the interests of the consumer at heart but by those who have the long-term interests of the profession at heart.

The amendments have been altered from their original wording to take account of the Coopers and Lybrand findings and recommendations and to make them compatible with the Solicitors (Independent Complaints Procedure) Bill. The Opposition have been working from the draft Coopers and Lybrand report, which someone was good enough to send me in advance of publication, and perhaps in advance of potential dilution. I like to think that it was sent to me by the Lord Chancellor, but the Attorney-General tells me that that is unlikely, to put it at its nicest.

The report tells the Law Society what the Opposition, the Legal Action Group and the National Consumer Council could have told it more cheaply. In short, the report says that the game is up. It urges an independent complaints procedure, a focus for complaints, a separation of the Law Society's trade union functions from its disciplinary ones, and arbitration. I was pleased that the report referred to the solicitors' trade union role in the same affectionate way as I referred to it in Committee.

The report says some unkind things about the speed and responsiveness of the Law Society's complaints procedure. It found that there was "a substantial backlog" and that the Professional Purposes Department was under-resourced and inadequately staffed. The report then criticised the department for its "extreme caution". Yet this is the institution in which, under part I of the Bill, the Government invite the general public to have continued confidence. The public will not have that confidence in it. They will rightly continue to feel cheated.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect is the Government's failure to develop a policy in advance of events. The pace of legislation has been dictated, not by the Government, but by the Law Society. The Government do not form a view until the Law Society has formed a view, which the Government then uncritically endorse. This is utterly craven. This wrong approach to reform has got the Government into the present mess. They are legislating in part I for the Law Society's last known view. However, the Law Society has just received a report from Coopers and Lybrand, which it commissioned, which says that the present view is wholly inadequate and untenable. On past form, when the Law Society changes its mind, the Government follow. It is therefore likely that we shall go over all this ground again and that the time of the House will have been wasted on part I.

There is a way out for the Government. To provide this way out we, as a responsible, helpful and constructive Opposition, have tabled the new clause. It could be that there are those with professional interests who hope that part I, as it stands, will appease the complaints. There may be those who hope to lose the contents of our amendments and the Coopers and Lybrand recommendations by delay and obstruction—in short, by adopting the same tactics which those who complain about solicitors say are used against them.

These proposals are our response to the present position. If that situation is allowed to deteriorate, due to neglect or deliberate obstruction, public pressure for a more thorough review of the Law Society's privileged position will become irresistible. I commend the new clause to the House and to the profession—in that order, not in the Government's order.

Mr. Alf Dubs (Battersea)

Earlier this year, I introduced under the ten-minute Bill procedure the Solicitors (Independent Complaints Procedure) Bill. Leave to introduce the Bill was given by the House without any opposition. Although it provoked an enormous postbag of mail from all over the country, I have not had a single letter or representation other than in support of the Bill's aims. I mention that legislation because these amendments are directly based on it.

I am grateful especially to the Legal Action Group but also to the National Consumer Council for their help in preparing the Bill and publicising it. There has been enormous support for that legislation. I have been astonished at the number of people who spoke to me, in the House and outside, and at the number of letters that I received not only from the very rich, who have complained bitterly about their solicitors, but from the very poor, whose lives have been seriously disrupted and damaged by disputes in which they believed that justice had not been done, although they complained about the solicitors who acted for them.

Of course, complaints against solicitors come from a minority of people. The bulk of our constituents are satisfied with the service that they get from solicitors. I am not seeking in any way to denigrate the whole profession. Nevertheless, an important minority feel seriously aggrieved because of their dealings with the legal profession. They feel that they have not received justice and believe that the method by which they can complain against solicitors is inadequate. They want changes.

I appreciate that the Attorney-General is embarrassed about this part of the Bill, because the Coopers and Lybrand report has appeared at the wrong time for him. I do not want to tread too much on his toes and dwell on his embarrassment, but it is obvious that he must be embarrassed. In a sense, I am sorry that circumstances have conspired to make that so.

The mystery surrounding the Coopers and Lybrand report puzzles me a little. I understand that it has been made available officially by the Law Society. I went into the House of Commons Library earlier today and asked whether it had a copy of the report. It assured me that it had not been able to obtain one from the Law Society. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) has one, and I have three copies. They all arrived by mysterious means in brown envelopes from sources about which I am not clear. If the Attorney-General is short of a copy or two, I have three. I do not need them all. I am genuinely puzzled about why the Law Society, knowing that the Bill was going through the House, and knowing that the part of the Bill dealing, with complaints against solicitors was coming before the House, did not move a little faster. I have reason to believe that the report has officially been out for about a week. Despite that, it has not reached the House of Commons Library. The Law Society is adding to the Attorney-General's embarrassment. If he is cross about that, I can only say that I agree with him.

8.30 pm

The Coopers and Lybrand report seems to be a sensible document. It makes its main criticisms of the present arrangements concisely. I should like to quote from paragraph 20 (a), (b) and (c) because that summarises the fault of the present system which is not put right by part I but which would be put right if the amendments were to be accepted. The first point is: A conflict of role arises if one body, in this case The Law Society, is responsible both for handling complaints against solicitors and for carrying out the full range of activities of a professional representative association". There is a contrast in the views of Ministers. They feel that there would be an unacceptable conflict of interest in regard to conveyancing if the same solicitor were to work for a bank or building society, yet they do not—unless I am going to be surprised later—share the view that there is an intolerable conflict of interest if the Law Society acts as a professional body on behalf of solicitors and investigates complaints against solicitors by members of the public.

The second point made by the Coopers and Lybrand report is: the distinctions made between the different types of complaints are confused and extremely difficult for the public to understand". The third point is: the complaints handling process is slow, cumbersome, inefficient and unresponsive to change. The case for the amendments is contained within those three criticisms. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East said, the amendments are based upon the Bill, that I introduced, but have been adjusted to give more direct effect to the Coopers and Lybrand report.

It is essential to have an independent system for investigating complaints against solicitors. As has been made clear in the report, that would give a number of distinct benefits. First, if the suggested scheme were adopted, there would be one focus for complaints. In other words, a member of the public who feels a sense of grievance would have only one place to go and could be satisfied that the complaint would be taken on from there. At the moment, the Law Society all too often says that it does not handle a complaint and it may suggest a different remedy to the complainant. The solicitor might be required to do the work again or to refund the money.

Some of those benefits exist in the scheme provided in the Bill. The solicitor might be reprimanded. The complaint might be referred directly from the new complaints body to the solicitors disciplinary tribunal or there might be an arbitration scheme that would make recourse to the courts in negligence cases involving up to £2,000 unnecessary. The last point would be especially beneficial because a complainant who feels aggrieved by his previous experience of the legal profession and perhaps the courts will not be happy if he is told that he has a remedy and can go to the courts. Of course, there is the money involved. Legal aid might help. However, it will not appeal to the average person who feels a sense of grievance to suggest that he or she should go through the whole cumbersome procedure again and possibly incur the expenditure of significant sums of money. That is why I am keen on the arbitration scheme which is suggested in the amendment.

There is another point of some importance which relates to a proposal contained in the Bill and which I think is unsatisfactory. I understand that, under the present scheme, the Law Society has a wide discretion to refuse to deal with a complaint. That is wrong. It is arbitrary and it may leave the complainant confused. Such a let-out would not be available to the new body dealing with complaints. It would be obliged to deal with all complaints. That proposal would be of immense benefit not just to the average member of the community who feels a sense of grievance but to the legal profession. I cannot think of a more invidious position for the legal profession to find itself in than the one in which it is now. There have been some notorious instances in which the complaints system, as handled by the Law Society, has completely broken down. I shall not take up the time of the House by repeating examples which have been mentioned previously.

If the Law Society wishes to sustain the present position or if it believes that the small improvements contained in the Bill are adequate, it is in difficulties. I contend that the Bill is inadequate.

If we pass the Bill and merely say, "Oh, well, we may get round to thinking about this again," we, shall be storing up trouble for ourselves. Even at this late hour in the Bill's life, the Attorney-General can say that he accepts the amendments. He has an alternative, which I put to him as a second best. The least that he can do is give a commitment that he will consider sympathetically the conclusions contained in the Coopers and Lybrand report with a view to early legislation. If the Attorney-General cannot do that, he is merely storing up difficulties for himself.

An enormous body of opinion in this country feels that we need the changes. They are of interest to many people. Until such changes are brought about, and until we have an independent system of investigating complaints against solicitors, many of us and many other people will not be satisfied. If we leave the matter tonight without a commitment for the future, it will not be long before we shall have to legislate again. It would be a pity to say that we will do nothing now, put off the day and have to do something in a few years' time. That is not good enough. We owe more to the people who would like to see changes.

I hope that we can have some positive guidance from the Attorney-General. I hope that he will accept the amendments but, if not, I hope that he will give a clear commitment as to the action that he will take in the near future.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

I welcome new clause 4, which has a good deal of merit. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will carefully consider some of the suggestions that he has heard from the Opposition because, although the Law Society supports the improvement contained in the Bill, some of us believe that the present arrangements, even with the improved machinery included in the Bill, will not be adequate.

I support the right of anyone to go to the complaints board. The complaints will then be referred to the investigating panel and to the adjudicating panel. That seems simple and straightforward.

I am grateful to the Law Society for writing to me only last month to explain the safeguards that exist in the Bill and the improvement that the Bill would make to the existing system. Even with that strengthened system, I believe that in practice there will be manifest failings. I say that because in the Bill, and in the letter from the Law Society dated 5 June, there is not one word about delay. I have serious misgivings about the way in which the Law Society conducts its affairs, because of the almost endless delay and prevarication that an ordinary Member of Parliament experiences in trying to obtain some form of justice for his constituents.

In the past 10 years, two of my constituents met with severe accidents involving head injury. In each case I had to approach the Law Society in trying to secure better compensation for them. I shall refer to my constituents as Mr. A and Mr. B.

Mr. A, who was involved in a serious car accident, was awarded about £27,000 for his injuries. It was a handsome and fair award, but the solicitor who acted for Mr. A presented a bill for about £23,000. Luckily, that was spotted and the solicitor eventually sent my constituent a cheque for the overcharge of £23,000 in his bill because of "a clerical error", as he put it. That was a disgraceful case of deliberate overcharging of a man who was not mentally able to cope with his affairs for himself. That solicitor should have been prosecuted for criminal negligence. That is the course that the Law Society said that it was considering four or five years ago. Although Mr. A has received back the £23,000 overcharge, there is no sign of a prosecution taking place.

Mr. B, who was also involved in a serious motor car accident, was awarded substantial damages of about £22,000. Again, that was a perfectly fair award. As with Mr. A, the machinery of the law proceeded in an adequate and normal way. But Mr. B's solicitors fell foul of the law by paying Mr. B directly £22,000 when he was manifestly mentally inadequate. In his mentally disabled state, Mr. B squandered the money and is now penniless. The solicitors handling Mr. B's case were in contravention of the law for, if a client is mentally incapacitated, they have a duty not to give him the money directly, as he is not able to be responsible for his actions. I sent particulars of that case to the Law Society between five and 10 years ago. The last letter I had from the society was this week. I was reminded that the long recess was due and that the society hoped in due course to let me have counsel's opinion on whether the firm in question should be prosecuted.

In dealing with those two cases I met with extreme lack of interest, prevarication and blocking on the part of the Law Society. As far as I can see, it will be another 10 years or so before the obvious action will be taken. For that reason, if I have the chance to do so, I shall support the new clause.

8.45 pm
Mr. Alex Carlile

The Glanville Davies case was an ill wind but it did a good deal of good. It swept like a hurricane through the Law Society in Chancery lane, and I believe that one of the most interesting results of that case is that it has actually changed attitudes among solicitors.

In paragraph 41 of the Coopers and Lybrand report, in which I think the authors are referring particularly to their contacts among solicitors, they say: We have found widespread agreement with our broad conclusion that complaints handling should be transferred from The Society to a new and regulatory body separate from and independent of The Law Society". They go on to say: We have much less agreement about the nature and functions of the new body—not least because many had thought up to, but not beyond, the need for complaints handling to be independent of The Society. However, it is not beyond the wit of man and not even beyond the wit of Government—even of this Government—that some means might be devised, and devised very quickly, to provide the independent procedure needed for dealing with complaints against solicitors.

It is notable that other professions and other bodies have already devised independent disciplinary procedures. The accountancy profession, which had to deal with the difficulty of being a profession split into different parts, has recently established a joint disciplinary scheme which applies to all members of four professional associations participating in the scheme. The scheme provides procedures for investigating the professional and business conduct of accountants of the four different types. The procedure enables their efficiency and their competence to be investigated in questions which give rise to public concern.

It is fundamentally offensive that the Law Society should carry out the two functions of representing solicitors and regulating solicitors. It is not necessary to expand the arguments beyond those broad but important professions of principle—a principle which, I believe, is widely held on both sides of the House. We would hope to hear tonight from the Attorney-General that the Government have not only taken note of the Coopers and Lybrand report—as, of course, they have—but have decided that in the next Session of Parliament, within the next few months, there will be legislation giving expression to that widespread agreement to which I referred in quoting from paragraph 41 of the report.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

The great majority of the solicitors—the collective noun is a "charge" of solicitors—who were present on the Government Benches during the debate on conveyancing, when the Government's mind was still open and the solicitors were wanting to close it in a direction favourable to their interests, have now disappeared. I take it that that means that on this matter the Government have made up their mind and will not accept our new clauses. Nevertheless, it is still important to argue the case for the amendment, in the best interests of the legal profession itself.

My concern is for a profession which serves the public in all its problems, defends all its rights, and even puts the public interest and serving the public above its vested interest as a cosy profession. It is because of that emphasis that the Government should act in the profession's own best interest and accept the new clauses.

There is a sad contrast between the Government's behaviour on this matter and on conveyancing, and it is important to draw attention to that. When it comes to banks and building societies doing conveyancing, conflict of interest becomes paramount—so important that it can obviate the principle in the eyes of some. The Lord Chancellor can selfishly argue that one has to defend the income of solicitors because one does not want to pay more fees in legal aid to them. Conflict of interest there is all-important. But when we come to complaints against solicitors, where there is a real conflict of interest, it is ignored by the Government. That conflict is real and palpable and is felt by the public.

The Law Society cannot act as a trade union defending the vested interests of its members and as custodian of the public interest serving and dealing with complaints by the public. It cannot be judge, jury and accused in its own case. There is a real conflict of interest. If the Government regard conflict of interest as so important, why do they not do something about it and accept our new clauses, which get round the problem? The Coopers and Lybrand report makes clear in paragraph 23 what a conflict of interest is. It says: some consider that The Society's complaints handling and representational roles are inherently in conflict, whatever arrangements are devised to minimise the conflict in individual cases; they are concerned that, despite rigorous efforts to eliminate conflict in those cases, there will still be cases in which it will occur. From our programme of interviews and consultations, we are impressed by the widespread perception of, and concern over, this basic conflict, both among members of the profession and among outsiders. The question of conflict of interest is obsessive. Why will the Government not do anything about it? Our new clauses get round the problem. All Members who speak on legal issues are deluged with complaints about solicitors. One can understand some of the complaints, because people who lose do not like losing. But many of the complaints are about shoddy workmanship, inattention and inefficiency. They are justified complaints from which there is no redress. The Bill, as it stands, does not provide adequate redress. The Government will be serving the public well if they accept the new clauses.

Part I of the Bill is not satisfactory. There is no mention of a concrete code of written professional standards. The boundary between negligence and inadequate professional work is not defined. The Law Society is given wide discretion to deal with complaints, or to refuse to deal with complaints, and the shoddy work jurisdiction is almost entirely in the hands of the society. All that is wrong.

More important, events have overtaken the Bill and we are legislating nonsense. The report from Coopers and Lybrand manifestly says that the Bill is inadequate and that there has to be independent machinery. That is what we are proposing in the new clauses. Yet the Government are determined to press on in the face of their own inadequacies. They are closing the case for legislation for at least two or three years, and giving us a stopgap measure which has been rejected by the society's own advisers.

I am aware that part I comes directly from the Law Society. Speaking as the political arm of the Law Society, the Lord Chancellor says that part I was requested by the society, and he is inclined to listen only to the society in this kind of case. That is an interesting comment on the source of the legislation. The Law Society's own management consultants, Coopers and Lybrand, say the proposals are inadequate and therefore the Government have a responsibility to think again. They should not push this House into nonsensical legislation which has been bypassed by events.

The Government will doubtless say that they want time to consult, but there was no consultation over part I before it was put into the Bill. In any case, consultation could take years, bearing in mind the way the profession functions. Coopers and Lybrand referred to an unacceptable gap of 11 years in the preparation by the society of a new guide to professional conduct. If that is the speed of consultation, it would be far better to do what we are proposing, which is to lay down the basic guidelines by way of the new clauses and to allow consultation to take place on how the basic guidelines are to be operated and filled in.

Parliament has a clear mandate from the public to act by ensuring that the new legislation is not nonsense. That is what it will be if we pass it unchanged. It should be not a stopgap, but legislation which will fulfil a public need. There is strong public feeling. All the opinion polls and our own correspondence show that. We need an independent review procedure for complaints. If the Bill is passed unamended, people will feel that Parliament is once again ignoring the public interest and getting into cahoots with a privileged profession in order to protect that profession from the standards of impartiality and independent review which are maintained in every aspect of life and in all other professions.

The Attorney-General

The canard was repeated by the hon. Member for Newcastle on Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). I assure him that there is no mole in ermine in this building, and that includes the Lord Chancellor. I suspect I know who it was.

We had a valuable contribution from the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs), and all of us respect his work on this subject. I have expressed my admiration for him before, and I repeat it tonight. I should tell the hon. Gentleman that if the Library does not have the Coopers and Lybrand report it must be because it does not take the Law Society's Gazette, because it was published as a supplement to the Gazette on 10 July and was therefore available to anybody who needed it.

I wish that I could give to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) the undertaking that within a few months we will introduce legislation. I cannot do that, for reasons which I shall explain in a little detail.

My old friend the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) invented yet another phrase—a charge of solicitors—which tempts me to think that he is the grouser of Great Grimsby. I hope that he will not sue me for that.

I hope that the House will forgive me if I take a little time, because this is an important subject and deserves to be dealt with in proper detail. It has been helpful to have this opportunity so early after the publication of the report to debate the proposals for an independent solicitors complaints board, as reflected in the new clauses and in another way in the Coopers and Lybrand report, or what it calls the exposure draft of its report.

Before Opposition Members get too carried away with enthusiasm for immediate change, I must inject a note of caution. The first warning must be that whatever legislative changes might be needed to give effect to such proposals, they cannot be included in this Bill. It is far too late, even if there were settled policy, to formulate the additional clauses which would be needed to make the changes suggested in the Opposition new clauses or by Coopers and Lybrand. Not only would there need to be several new provisions to set up a solicitors complaints board, to describe its functions in detail and to prescribe its constitution, but there would have to be a line-by-line examination of the 80 or so sections of the Solicitors Act 1974 to see what should be removed, what retained and what amended. Therefore, the new clauses are defective, although I do not complain about that. I admire the huge amount of work that must have gone into them, and congratulate hon. Members on what they did.

9 pm

This debate will be helpful in assisting the Law Society in its deliberations on the report—we have already heard conflicting views, as one would expect, from the council of the Law Society—and the House will agree. on reflection, that rushed and ill-thought-out legislation is something that we would live to regret.

We are considering an exposure draft—a first report—as only one element in the first phase of the fundamental review of the society's functions and organisation now in hand. We must await the further reports from the management consultants on the other matters within their terms of reference. We must consider structure, staffing and systems, which have been expressly reserved by Coopers and Lybrand for later phases of the review, as is consideration of the society's representational functions and its role in legal aid administration. All those matters deserve careful consideration, and even if the society can form rapid decisions following the end of the consultation period in October—which I suspect is unlikely—if would be foolish then to press for early legislation and, therefore, miss the opportunity to take account of later proposals, which, in a sense, is the reverse of the accusations made against us in carrying on with part I.

The Coopers and Lybrand report proposes that a solicitors complaints board independent of the Law Society be created with the duty of investigating all complaints against solicitors. A central theme is that the new board would provide a one-door entry point for all complaints against solicitors., having power to impose sanctions in respect of less serious cases, but being able to pass on the more serious cases of misconduct and negligence to the solicitors disciplinary tribunal and the courts. That approach is only one option for change. The society, being rightly anxious to encourage as wide-ranging a debate as possible, has identified some alternative options. It might, for example, be possible to satisfy public concern through the creation of separate committees within the Law Society with responsibility for the investigation of, and the adjudication on, complaints against solicitors. It seems right that such alternative approaches be considered. Whether we can accept them is another matter. The society has also identified some potential difficulties outlined in the Coopers and Lybrand report.

Those considering the report will no doubt wish to make an especially close analysis of the wide variety of factors which it brings together. The consultants—naturally enough, perhaps, having regard to the nature of their exercise—have tended to concentrate on the society's functions when considering possible improvements in the system for handling complaints. But this ignores the fact that the society is only one of three bodies with major functions in this area, and—hitherto, at least—has been exercising very much a subordinate jurisdiction when compared with the courts and the solicitors disciplinary tribunal.

We shall always have problems between any new body and the negligence jurisdiction of the courts, bearing in mind the real and immediate danger of prejudice to clients' interests. We must think carefully about the extent to which a single point of entry can work in this area. Further thought may need to be given to the relationships with the quality control aspects of taxation and remuneration certificate procedure. We may need additional consideration of the role of a lay observer, given the presence of lay representatives on the proposed new body. We must also consider accountability: to whom should that new body be accountable?

Those are some of the clearly difficult issues that must be resolved before the Government can invite the House to consider legislation for changes. The report acknowledges that there are no absolute answers here and that these are matters for judgment. It acknowledges that much existing criticism may relate to appearance as much as to reality. It refers to a wider issue of public confidence, by no means confined to the Law Society, in the accountability of professional associations and the means of disciplining their members. The criticisms that have been made of the lack of independent elements within the existing system disregard the part at present played by the solicitors disciplinary tribunal as a statutory body, independent of the Law Society, and the lay observer as an independent check on the society's handling of complaints against solicitors. Thus, even on the fundamental principle of an independent body, there is clearly more than one view. In his recently published report, the lay observer—and I shall not quote it all—made it quite clear that he took a contrary view, so the opinion, although it may so appear from the debate today, does not in fact lie all in the same direction. After the recent events in Wales, I think that we are now a little more suspicious of MORI polls than we were before. Therefore, the MORI polls which were quoted previously must be considered with a little suspicion.

The response to the consultation exercise which has now been embarked upon will assist the society in reaching informed decisions on all the matters raised in the Coopers and Lybrand report. It is right that the Government should wait until such time as this process is complete before forming a view of their own, but I assure the House that the Government have a completely open mind about whether a complaints system independent of the Law Society best suits the public interest.

I come to the points that were made by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery. This is really an approach from a different angle, based on the report of the National Consumer Council. It is getting to very much the same end by rather different means. The points that I have made, as I am sure the hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate, as a lawyer, about the Coopers and Lybrand report apply equally to him. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not go into great detail, because in a sense I would merely be repeating what I have said before. Whichever suggestion one takes—the Coopers and Lybrand report, which is merely the first stage of a much more detailed analysis, or the National Consumer Council report—these are matters which obviously need a great deal more consultation, and I am sure that, on reflection, the House would be the first to agree that hastily rushed through legislation does great harm in the end.

Part I contains a number of real benefits for the client. I would hate in any way to delay those, because, if we cannot have all that we want today, for the reasons that I have given, part I provides more safeguards for the public, which the House will generally welcome.

Mr. Dubs

The Attorney-General has been a little enigmatic. He says that the Government are completely open-minded about the possibility of an independent system for investigating such complaints. Can he give the House some idea of the possible time scale, on the assumption that this open-mindedness on the Government's part comes to an end and the Coopers and Lybrand report proves to be persuasive?

The Attorney-General

I think that I made it clear. We obviously must have the complete series of reports from Coopers and Lybrand. On the existing report, there is a consultation period ending in October. We shall want to see what the Law Society and others concerned say. It may well be that the bulk of opinion will be on the lines of Coopers and Lybrand. I want to have the other reports, because Coopers and Lybrand has reserved certain matters, to which I referred, for later reports. We do not want to have two bites at the cherry. Indeed, we have already been accused of having two bites.

We shall have to consider carefully the existing law about solicitors contained in the Solicitors Act 1974. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no deliberate holding back by the Government. We shall move as fast as we can, but he will appreciate, as will all hon. Members, the difficulty in getting such matters into the programme of a coming Session. There is always great competition to include Bills. I give him the undertaking that there will be no feet dragging of any kind.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

The Attorney-General's reply was disappointing, though not unexpectedly so. We appreciate the Government's difficulties, even embarrassment, in this area. However, we feel it important to show the Law Society that Opposition Members mean business and we shall, therefore, press the matter to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided. Ayes 145, Noes 233.

Division No. 281] [9.9 pm
Ashton, Joe Beckett, Mrs Margaret
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Beggs, Roy
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Beith, A. J.
Barnett, Guy Benn, Tony
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) John, Brynmor
Bermingham, Gerald Johnston, Sir Russell
Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E) Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E) Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N) Kirkwood, Archy
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith) Lamond, James
Bruce, Malcolm Lead bitter, Ted
Buchan, Norman Leighton, Ronald
Caborn, Richard Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M) Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Litherland, Robert
Carter-Jones, Lewis Livsey, Richard
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Clarke, Thomas Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Loyden, Edward
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.) McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Cohen, Harry McGuire, Michael
Conlan, Bernard McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Cook, Frank (Stockton North) McKelvey, William
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston) MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Corbett, Robin Maclennan, Robert
Cowans, Harry McTaggart, Robert
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) McWilliam, John
Craigen, J. M. Madden, Max
Crowther, Stan Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Cunliffe, Lawrence Martin, Michael
Dalyell, Tam Maynard, Miss Joan
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l) Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Deakins, Eric Miller, DrM. S. (E Kilbride)
Dewar, Donald Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Dixon, Donald Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Dobson, Frank Nellist, David
Dormand, Jack Nicholson, J.
Douglas, Dick O'Brien, William
Dubs, Alfred O'Neill, Martin
Duffy, A. E. P. Park, George
Eastham, Ken Parry, Robert
Edwards, Bob (W'h'mpfn SE) Pavitt, Laurie
Ewing, Harry Penhaligon, David
Farr, Sir John Pike, Peter
Fatchett, Derek Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Faulds, Andrew Prescott, John
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Redmond, M.
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn) Richardson, Ms Jo
Fisher, Mark Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Flannery, Martin Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Forrester, John Rogers, Allan
Foster, Derek Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Fraser, J. (Norwood) Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Garrett, W. E. Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Silkin, Rt Hon J.
Godman, Dr Norman Skinner, Dennis
Gould, Bryan Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)
Gourlay, Harry Snape, Peter
Hamilton, James (M'well N) Soley, Clive
Hardy, Peter Steel, Rt Hon David
Harman, Ms Harriet Strang, Gavin
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Taylor, Rt Hon John David
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
Heffer, Eric S. Torney, Tom
Hogg, N, (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Wainwright, R.
Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall) Wallace, James
Home Robertson, John Wareing, Robert
Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath) Winnick, David
Howells, Geraint Woodall, Alec
Hoyle, Douglas Young, David (Bolton SE)
Hughes, Dr. Mark (Durham)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Tellers for the Ayes:
Hughes, Roy (Newport East) Mr. Frank Haynes and
Hughes, Simon (Southward) Mr. Sean Hughes.
Janner, Hon Greville
Adley, Robert Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)
Aitken, Jonathan Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset)
Amess, David Baldry, Tony
Ancram, Michael Batiste, Spencer
Arnold, Tom Beaumont-Dark, Anthony
Ashby, David Bellingham, Henry
Aspinwall, Jack Bendall, Vivian
Bevan, David Gilroy Grylls, Michael
Biffen, Rt Hon John Gummer, John Selwyn
Blackburn, John Hampson, Dr Keith
Boscawen, Hon Robert Hanley, Jeremy
Bottomley, Peter Hannam, John
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Hargreaves, Kenneth
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n) Harris, David
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael
Boyson, Dr Rhodes Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk)
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Hawksley, Warren
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Hayes, J.
Bright, Graham Hayward, Robert
Brinton, Tim Heathcoat-Amory, David
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Hickmet, Richard
Brooke, Hon Peter Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Hind, Kenneth
Browne, John Hirst, Michael
Bruinvels, Peter Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A. Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)
Buck, Sir Antony Holt, Richard
Budgen, Nick Howard, Michael
Burt, Alistair Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Butterfill, John Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)
Carlisle, John (N Luton) Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford)
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S) Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)
Carttiss, Michael Hubbard-Miles, Peter
Cash, William Hunt, David (Wirral)
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Hunter, Andrew
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Irving, Charles
Chapman, Sydney Jessel, Toby
Chope, Christopher Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Clegg, Sir Walter Jones, Robert (W Herts)
Colvin, Michael Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith
Coombs, Simon Key, Robert
Cope, John King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Corrie, John King, Rt Hon Tom
Couchman, James Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Cranborne, Viscount Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Critchley, Julian Knowles, Michael
Crouch, David Lamont, Norman
Currie, Mrs Edwina Lang, Ian
Dickens, Geoffrey Latham, Michael
Dicks, Terry Lawler, Geoffrey
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel
Dover, Den Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Durant, Tony Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Dykes, Hugh Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)
Eggar, Tim Lightbown, David
Emery, Sir Peter Lilley, Peter
Evennett, David Lloyd, Ian (Havant)
Fairbairn, Nicholas Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)
Fallon, Michael Lord, Michael
Favell, Anthony Luce, Richard
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Lyell, Nicholas
Fletcher, Alexander McCrindle, Robert
Fookes, Miss Janet McCurley, Mrs Anna
Forman, Nigel Macfarlane, Neil
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Forth, Eric Maclean, David John
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)
Fox, Marcus McQuarrie, Albert
Franks, Cecil Major, John
Fraser, Peter (Angus East) Malins, Humfrey
Freeman, Roger Mather, Carol
Fry, Peter Maude, Hon Francis
Gale, Roger Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Galley, Roy Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Mayhew, Sir Patrick
Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde) Merchant, Piers
Garel-Jones, Tristan Meyer, Sir Anthony
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Glyn, Dr Alan Mills, Iain (Meriden)
Goodlad, Alastair Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)
Gow, Ian Moate, Roger
Gower, Sir Raymond Monro, Sir Hector
Grant, Sir Anthony Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Gregory, Conal Moore, John
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Moynihan, Hon C.
Ground, Patrick Murphy, Christopher
Neale, Gerrard Rost, Peter
Nelson, Anthony Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Newton, Tony Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Nicholls, Patrick Shersby, Michael
Normanton, Tom Sims, Roger
Oppenheim, Phillip Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S. Soames, Hon Nicholas
Osborn, Sir John Speed, Keith
Ottaway, Richard Stern, Michael
Page, Sir John (Harrow W) Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Page, Richard (Herts SW) Stevens, Martin (Fulham)
Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood
Parris, Matthew Stokes, John
Patten, Christopher (Bath) Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Pawsey, James Thompson, Donald (Calder V
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Pollock, Alexander Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Porter, Barry Thurnham, Peter
Portillo, Michael Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Powell, William (Corby) Viggers, Peter
Prentice, Rt Hon Reg Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Price, Sir David Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Proctor, K. Harvey Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Raffan, Keith Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Rathbone, Tim Wiggin, Jerry
Renton, Tim Wood, Timothy
Rhodes James, Robert Younger, Rt Hon George
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Ridsdale, Sir Julian Tellers for the Noes:
Rifkind, Malcolm Mr. Archie Hamilton and Mr. Michael Neubert.
Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Roe, Mrs Marion

Question accordingly negatived.

Forward to