'It's supposed to be non-profit . . . yet it had to pay $1.7 million in profit
LAWYERS are preparing to grill the Law Society over its multi-million-dollar expenditure amid rumours of an almost $20 million budget increase this year.
Members said they want to know why the body, with an annual income of $42.4 million, spent $15 million on staff salaries last year and holds a $23.5 million surplus.
The society has circulated its 1994 annual report, which accounts for the previous two years' spending. On Monday it announced it had re-negotiated the lease on its plush Swire House Central offices, almost doubling its rent in the process.
Lawyers intend to raise the issue of spending at the society's annual general meeting (AGM) in May. More than half of the society's $42.4 million income comes from its 3,400 members, many of whom pay annual fees of $10,000 for practising certificates and membership subscriptions.
'It's supposed to be a non-profit making organisation acting to protect the interests of its members,' said a member, Thomas Tse Lin-chung.
'Yet last year it made so much profit, it had to pay $1.7 million in profit tax. Are the profits for the good of its members or the good of the Inland Revenue?' Council member Philip Li Wai-ip cites growing concern among solicitors about the society's accountability.
'No one has ever questioned the society's spending at the AGM before,' he said. 'I want to change the atmosphere, make the meeting more democratic, and encourage the members to ask more questions.
'A concern of a lot of our members is where the money is going. The secretariat employs about 50 full-time staff. I want to know if we really need so many.' Solicitors Concern Group head Yolanda Fan Pui-lan said the society's ballooning budget and staff size raised questions.
'A lot of members talk about how the Law Society is increasing its fees and want an explanation,' Ms Fan said.
'The Law Society is ever-expanding in terms of staff. They don't explain the staff structure.
'Why are they renting such expensive premises? There are cheaper offices which are still in Central.' Law Society secretary general Patrick Moss dismissed the members' worries as 'criticism born of ignorance'.
'This is a bunch of politicals trying to draw attention to themselves. The Law Society is a soft target; this is pretty low calibre stuff,' he said.
Mr Moss defended the society's spending on staff.
'There is a great deal of work to be done. Those who are making the criticisms should come to the society and see how busy it is. We have 40 committees to run. Often we have three meetings a day.' Mr Moss said the Swire House offices were convenient and rebutted allegations the multi-million dollar reserve was excessive.
'We were thinking of buying premises,' he said. 'It's important to have money for a rainy day. There may be all sorts of matters the society has to deal with.' Law Society vice-president Patrick Sherrington said the body held budget meetings monthly.
'There is tremendous public concern that lawyers should be well regulated. It's the society's job to see that it's done properly. To do that we have to spend.' Mr Li said he would raise queries about the society's spending for 1995, which he said was expected to increase by 45 per cent.
'I was stunned when I heard this,' he said. 'I will keep asking about this.' Mr Sherrington and Mr Moss were unable to confirm the scale of the increase.
'We have large rent increases and increasing demands for staff. I am sure there is good reason for an increase,' Mr Sherrington said. 'But we certainly won't be doing anything like buying our president a Rolls-Royce.'