Independent group to review NI Law Society’s handling of trainee pay issue

Independent group to review NI Law Society's handling of trainee pay issue

John Fox

An independent working group has been established to review the Law Society of Northern Ireland’s handling of the trainee pay issue which threatens to leave some firms out of pocket to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds.

A special general meeting taking place in Law Society House yesterday heard of discontent among solicitors since the Society informed members in September 2023 that they may owe back pay to trainee solicitors.

The main outcome was the appointment of Omagh solicitor John Fox to lead a new five-person independent consultative group, which has been asked to report to the Law Society Council and members within four weeks.

The issue relates to the practice of firms not paying trainee solicitors during the period they spend studying and sitting exams at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies (IPLS), which HMRC believes is in breach of minimum wage legislation.

The Law Society says the issue was first brought to its attention in April 2023 when it was contacted by EY, with whom the issue had been raised by a number of law firms following an HMRC compliance initiative.

After meeting in May 2023, the Council immediately wrote to all principals to advise that the national minimum wage should, from then on, be paid to trainee solicitors for their entire traineeship, including their time at the IPLS.

At the same time, the Council sought legal advice on the matter and obtained an opinion from David Reade KC in June 2023. Subsequently, the Council began talks with HMRC which resulted, in August 2023, in the successful negotiation of a six-month “grace period” for back payments.

It was only at this point, in September 2023, that the Society wrote to members to make them aware of the extent of the issue and the steps the Society had taken to address them. According to the Society, time pressures prevented any earlier consultation with the membership.

Amid pushback from lawyers, including some who argued that the Society should bear responsibility and indemnify members for the unexpected costs, the Society shared with members a copy of Mr Reade’s opinion — albeit with redactions made at the behest of the Society’s insurers.

There continues to be disagreement in legal circles over HMRC’s position and who should be expected to pay.

Jonathan McKeown, CEO of JMK Solicitors, today told Irish Legal News that there appeared to be a “conflict of interest” between the Society and its members.

He said the Society “should have recognised that immediately in April/May 2023 and at that time advised the membership of the issue and set up an independent working group to advise members separately from the Society”.

While that didn’t happen last year, Mr McKeown welcomed the establishment of an independent working group at yesterday’s special general meeting.

Mr Fox, who requested the special general meeting and will lead the group, said: “The Society confirmed that the group will be provided all assistance and access to enable a review to be carried out in respect of the Society’s handling of the national minimum wage issue.

“The group will be made up of five independent members and will hopefully provide an interim report to members within four weeks of setting up.

“The group will play a pivotal role in re-engaging members with the Society.”

A spokesperson for the Law Society of Northern Ireland said: “A special general meeting of the Law Society of Northern Ireland took place on Wednesday 7th February 2024.

“The members attending the meeting approved a proposal to establish an independent consultative group to make representations to the Society’s governing Council.”

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