Matt O’Brien, Chair of the Birmingham Law Society Criminal Law Committee, explores how regional law societies give their members the power to influence national policy.
There are 50+ regional and local law societies in England and Wales, many with a rich history pre-dating even the national Law Society. Birmingham Law Society recently celebrated its 200th year and is one of the oldest.
The relevance of regional and local law societies has been questioned over the years, with critics suggesting that the legal profession is best defined by specialist expertise, not geographic location. However, regional societies are uniquely effective when it comes to representing the views of their members.
In 2019, Birmingham Law Society responded on behalf of its members to consultations by the Department of Business, Energy, Industry and Skills, the Department of Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Justice, HM Treasury, HMRC, the Sentencing Council, the Law Commission and the SRA, and independent inquiries.
The power of local
At the end of 2019, the views of criminal law professionals across the Midlands were represented in a landmark parliamentary report on access to justice in England and Wales, lending them critical weight and the potential to influence the future of our entire justice system.
The Court and Tribunal reforms report, part of the recent inquiry by the parliamentary cross-party Justice Select Committee into the impact of the £1bn programme of court reforms being implemented by HM Courts and Tribunals Services, contained several references to evidence provided by Midlands legal professionals via the Birmingham Law Society Criminal Law Committee.
As committee chair, I was impressed and proud of the breadth and depth of the insights offered by our members. These insights formed the basis of our written submission to the inquiry, and also of our subsequent oral submission - which we were invited to make directly to the review panel alongside representatives of the Magistrates Association, the Criminal Bar Association and the police.
Local voices matter
The heavy weight given to our evidence in the final report is an excellent example of the commitment by Birmingham Law Society to champion the voices of its members on the issues that matter in the Midlands, and also of the wider value that regional law societies can bring to their members.
At Birmingham Law Society we have 12 committees representing specialist areas of legal and commercial practice. The committees' members regularly contribute their expertise in response to national consultations by government departments, public bodies and professional associations.
Some of these consultations involve matters that are relevant to only one of our specialist committees. For example, a Ministry of Justice consultation on extending fixed recoverable costs in civil cases in England and Wales was responded to by our Dispute Resolution Committee, putting forward its members' concerns about the potential consequences of these changes for private practice litigators.
Others, like the Justice Committee inquiry, affect more than one area of professional legal practice: the evidence given by my own committee was complemented by submissions from our Family Law Committee and our Personal Injury Committee.
Much of the evidence submitted by Birmingham Law Society last year was in response to consultation on issues affecting every area of practice, such as flexible working, health and wellbeing in the workplace and legal advocacy standards. It is on these sector-wide issues - any consultation upon which is unlikely to elicit a response from specialist interest groups - that the value of the representation afforded by regional law societies to their members is most apparent.
The scale and nature of the impact of such issues is often location-dependent, with demographic and socio-economic factors playing a huge role, as well as the effects of devolution of funding across England and Wales. For example, proposed changes to digitisation of the courts system may have vastly different consequences for a solicitor practising in rural Cumbria than for a barrister practising in central London.
Together we're stronger
It is by working closely with the national Law Society that we are able to offer our members a complete and rounded service. Like all its regional counterparts, Birmingham Law Society maintains close contact with a regional relationship manager at the Law Society. As a committee Chair I regularly correspond with our relationship manager about areas of mutual interest for our members
I frequently host members of the Law Society when they are visiting Birmingham, and have met with the deputy vice president Stephanie Boyce to welcome her to the role and improve links between our organisations.
By working together in this way with the national Law Society and also enabling voices that might otherwise be lost to be heard loud and clear by national policy-makers, regional law societies can ensure that we all have a say in the decisions that affect us - wherever we come from.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.
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