The weighted scales of justice.

The report by Michael Beloff QC declared the English ICA disciplinary system at least as good as those in similar organisations, and the public may take some comfort from this statement. But while certain improvements are being introduced for defendant members – particularly small practitioners – the scales of justice remain unbalanced:

* The English ICA has a bottomless pocket to pay for lawyers and the like.

* Members pay for their own defence which, even on minor issues, may amount to several thousand pounds.

* Costs added to fines reflect the length cases take – not the scale of the crime – may more than double the fine.

* Uncomfortable issues of evidence quality and lack of identifiable defence lawyers remain.

Unless you have insurance, it can be ruinously expensive in money and time to defend an unjust complaint; the institute will not provide legal assistance, stating insurance is available – you have been warned!

Such a system does not encourage having one’s days in court – far cheaper and quicker to plead guilty and get on with your life. Enough examples of ‘I couldn’t afford to do anything about it’ have been reported to warrant independent research on people who have been through the system.

Proven charges, even where there is no public interest, are detailed to national and local papers; recently, discourteous letters written by a member proved just the material for a rash of tabloid reporting; a mountain made out of a molehill, resulting in a damaged career and lasting resentment.

The institute should stick to policing the profession’s financial morals and worry less about private issues of no public consequence. But worse may follow as it debates whether to hold all disciplinary tribunals in public – surely not appropriate for lesser offences where a private reprimand or even a helping hand would serve better.

Should members not be allowed to vote on this fundamental change?

Peter Mitchell is chairman of the Small Practitioners Association

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