A bill for £1,580,000 plus vat served last month on Princess Diana's troubled memorial fund by solicitor Mishcon de Reya brings that firm's total charges to over £2.3 million which, a Sunday newspaper recently claimed, is more than double the size of any donation that the fund has so far made.
It is, of course, disappointing that such high legal costs are involved in administering the fund but we can at least be comforted by the reassurance that, despite Anthony Julius combining the role of partner in Mishcon de Reya, at the time the firm was hired, with that of current chairman of the memorial fund trustees, he 'was not directly responsible for choosing his own firm for the job'. Of course not - that would be unthinkable.
Those who give donations, large and small, can surely remain confident that monies are being administered with expediency and efficiency in pursuit of the fund's principal goals - the helping of the injured, the sick and the dying.
But, when necessary, the Law Society has a good system for dealing with complaints; much better than our profession's arrangements, for an aggrieved client can expect no more satisfaction from the arb than seeing his architect's name removed from the register.
Not so with solicitors. There, the Law Society (which is broadly equivalent to the riba) refers complaints to the Office for Supervision of Solicitors. Following investigation, it will in turn refer cases warranting action to the Solicitors' Disciplinary Tribunal, which may attempt conciliation between solicitor and client. But this body also has far-reaching powers beyond merely 'striking off' its register.
In the event of incompetence being found, the tribunal can fine solicitors, award compensation of up to £1000 payable by the solicitor to his client, direct the repayment of fees, or even the rectification of the mistake at the solicitor's own expense.
In the event of dishonesty, a compensation fund is available to make payments on behalf of a solicitor of up to £1,000,000.
Even registered double-glazing suppliers offer more to justified complainants than arb. The Plastic Window Federation investigates alleged failures and will, if appropriate, direct its member to remedy problems. If that fails, the Federation will pay others to do the work, drawing on insurance funds set up for such circumstances. The arb offers no such benefits.
Indeed the arb has no authority or power to either award or make payments to any 'consumer' who has suffered loss through an architect's negligence, incompetence, or even misconduct. That is why it is a waste of time referring complaints to the arb. If clients want recompense, they must go to the courts or to arbitration: the £1.54 million that architects pay in annual registration fees to the arb does nothing but cover the arb's exorbitant costs.
It would surely be better if the arb stopped trying to perform a role that it cannot possibly fulfil effectively and merely managed a fund to bring appropriate cases, on behalf of consumers, against architects' professional- indemnity insurers. Then, like the Plastic Window Federation, the arb would at least be able to secure some financial benefit for those who have suffered genuine loss - which is usually all an aggrieved client wants.
Better still, the government should scrap the arb altogether for, despite the good intentions of those involved, it is an absurd, expensive and ultimately useless organisation. In place, a body more akin to the Office for Supervision of Solicitors should be established - one that can effectively assist, and where appropriate even compensate, anyone who suffers loss due to the incompetence or misconduct of their architect.
That, of course, is something that the riba could undertake on its own. arb - please think before you reply.