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Access to Justice : Holyrood Justice Convener praises Law Chief who threatened, lied to Parliament, while SNP dither on reforms

22 Nov

In last Thursday’s Scottish Legal Services debate, among the vast array of questionable compliments afforded the Scots legal profession from members of the Scottish Parliament, was a direct reference to the now infamous Chief Executive of the Law Society of Scotland, Douglas Mill.

Bill Aitken MSP, Conservative Convener of the Justice Committee : “Change that is imposed upon one is hard to take, but change in the legal services market is necessary. The way in which the Scottish legal profession has recognised the necessity of change has been encouraging. Although it is not committing itself to any specific direction at this stage and the matter is one for consultation, the legal profession is due considerable praise for the way in which it has adapted.

It is to be congratulated on making a virtue of the necessity of proceeding as the Parliament would wish it to proceed. Scottish lawyers have an excellent reputation.

Members of the Law Society, such as Douglas Mill, have contributed to the International Institute of Law Association Chief Executives. That is indicative of the way in which Scots lawyers are regarded elsewhere.”

Such a strange compliment to make in a Parliamentary debate to the current Chief of the Law Society, who himself, is firmly against any change to the legal services markets, preferring to maintain the monopoly of members of the Law Society of Scotland on public access to legal services.

An even stranger compliment too, considering the fact that last year in 2006, Douglas Mill threatened the Scottish Parliament & Scottish Executive with legal action over the progress of the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, on the basis of the drafted-in English QC Lord Lester of Herne Hill’s opinions that it was a lawyers fundamental human right to regulate complaints against other lawyers, and continue to interfere in clients cases & complaints against poor service, as Douglas Mill himself has been caught doing on several occasions, his conduct now found to be common on many more cases …

I have to admit, I, and many others, would never have thought a member of the Scottish Parliament would have complimented, praised, even idolised so much, an individual who had threatened the very democratic principles which underpin political & public life in Scotland, to the extent of bullying elected politicians into changing or altering legislation for the sole benefit of himself and his ability to intervene in complaints as he saw fit.

It is certainly a conundrum awaiting a solution .. a Convener of the strangely sole Justice Committee for the term of this SNP administration (there have usually been two Justice Committees), tells us we should all admire someone who undermines our values, rather than adds to them – and SNP Ministers who knew of the legal threats & bullying from Mr Mill & others in the legal profession against the progress of the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, said nothing. Saying nothing in the face of such a wrong, surely supports that wrong … especially when it is a widely known wrong …

To explain this matter a little more clearly …

It is a matter of record that last year, Annabel Goldie MSP, Conservative, was the Convener of the Justice 2 Committee whose job it was to consider & investigate the LPLA Bill for progress & forwarding to Parliament for a vote.

Annabel Goldie, is of course, a solicitor, but, noting there may be a conflict of interest in her convenership of the Justice 2 Committee under such circumstances, she resigned her position on the aforementioned grounds of conflict of interest, to be replaced by David Davidson MSP, a fellow Conservative. You can read about Annabel Goldie’s resignation from the Justice 2 Committee here : Annabel Goldie does the right thing and resigns from Justice 2 Committee Convenership

The LPLA Bill as it was in 2006, went through the stages of committee deliberation and was finally passed, covered by me in an earlier article here : Legal Profession & Legal Aid Bill finally passed by Scottish Parliament, with amendments

The passage of the LPLA Bill, was one of the more difficult acts of the Scottish Parliament in 2006, being subject to a continuing campaign against the reforming legislation by the Law Society of Scotland, and various parts of the legal profession who wanted the LPLA Bill watered down, or even killed off.

One of those obstructions placed before the Parliament’s consideration of the LPLA Bill, was the threat of a direct legal challenge by the Chief Executive of the Law Society of Scotland, Douglas Mill, who publicly threatened legal action against both the Parliament and Scottish Executive, if the bill was passed without desired amendments from the Law Society of Scotland, who were and still are, of the opinion that it is the fundamental human right of lawyers to regulate themselves, and cover up complaints against themselves, as they have done for decades.

Since the LPLA Bill sought to bring a measure of independent regulation to complaints against lawyers, and outside scrutiny, this was seen as a direct threat to such complaints powers that lawyers have for far long been used to wielding against the public, with as media reports show, terrible effect and prejudice.

Mr Mill was also concerned, and is still concerned, the existence of such legislation as the LPLA Bill, now passed Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, would limit Mr Mill’s widely used power of intervening directly in complaints against solicitors, to either delay or destroy client claims of negligence against solicitors and legal firms, as the now Cabinet Secretary for Business John Swinney MSP had revealed to be the case in an extraordinary confrontation with Douglas Mill before the Justice 2 Committee hearings in 2006.

During last year’s Justice 2 Committee hearings, John Swinney revealed that secret memos by Mr Mill’s own hand and email exchanges with the infamous Insurance brokers Marsh (UK), illustrated a culture at the Law Society of Scotland, of interference, prejudice and hostility towards clients cases & complaints against negligent lawyers & legal firms, ensuring anyone making complaints or claims in such cases had no chance to recover from the damage done to their lives by disgraceful and corrupt legal practice.

The confrontation between John Swinney & Douglas Mill over the secret memo evidence, saw Mr Mill “swear on his granny’s grave” before the Justice 2 Committee of the Scottish Parliament he had never interfered in client complaints or claims against a solicitor or legal firm … despite Mr Mill’s own memos & email exchanges showing that to be exactly the case. Simply, the Chief Executive of the Law Society of Scotland therefore lied to the Scottish Parliament. You can read more about that story here : Law Society of Scotland claims success in gagging the press over Herald newspaper revelations of secret case memos

Curiously, there was no statement from John Swinney on his experiences before the Justice 2 Committee at last week’s Scottish legal services market debate, despite many expecting him to speak up on his intricate knowledge of difficulties at the Law Society of Scotland, and perhaps even more importantly, Mr Swinney’s experience and knowledge of Law Society officials operating a culture of obstructing individuals access to justice & access to legal services, whom the likes of Douglas Mill deemed should not get anywhere near a courtroom or a lawyer.

You can view some of Mr Swinney’s comments during the 2006 LPLA Bill debate in which he reveals significant problems with access to justice by visiting InjusticeTV.

If perhaps, Mr Swinney had made mention he was in possession of material such as letters from Law Society Executives to solicitors ordering them to obstruct clients access to justice, and even drop clients cases, perhaps last week’s legal services debate would have taken a different turn, more balanced for the consumer, than pro lawyer as it turned out.

You can read about that material which Mr Swinney has, proving Law Society officials intervention in cases & denied access to justice & legal services here : Law Society intervention in claims ‘commonplace’ as ex Chief admits Master Policy protects solicitors against clients

The unfortunate silence from Mr Swinney on these points, did spectacular damage to the fairness of last week’s debate on access to legal services, and allowed elements of the political scene who are plainly too close to the legal profession, to promote selfish shameless protectionism for lawyers, directly against the public interest and against any hope of wider access to justice.

Since the SNP took office in May 2007 after the Scottish Parliament elections, the system of having two Justice Committees was scrapped for reasons not convincingly explained … some pinned the culling of one of the two Justice Committees to costs, but others more in the know pointed to an effort to control legislation & calls for reform to the Scottish legal system which the previous Labour administration had began, slowly but surely.

Having two Justice committees, one traditionally chaired by an opposition party, and one chaired by the ruling party, was seen by the SNP as a problem, so they simply ditched one of the two Justice Committees and resolved the issue of ‘impartiality’ by installing a Conservative MSP as convener.

The MSP chosen to be Convener of the sole Justice Committee was Bill Aitken MSP – a close ally of the Law Society of Scotland, who had sought in the December 2006 LPLA Bill debate & vote to kill off major parts of the reforming legislation, including severely cutting back significant financial penalties to be imposed on crooked lawyers.

The ‘pro-lawyer, anti-client’ list of amendments Mr Aitken promoted within the LPLA Bill parliamentary debate, came from the Law Society of Scotland itself. You can read about Mr Aitken’s service to the Law Society on desired amendments here : Amendments to Scottish Executive LPLA Bill reveal possibility of contempt charges against Law Society officials.

In last week’s Scottish legal services market debate, Mr Aitken, happily installed by the SNP without so much as a flicker of questioning over impartiality or loyalty, made such praise as reported earlier, and such as the following :

Bill Aitken MSP : “Scotland has been well served by its legal profession and any debate on its regulation must be had against that background. However, as the cabinet secretary and Paul Martin have already said, that does not mean that change is not necessary.

The private legal profession contributes £1.2 billion to the Scottish economy. Obviously, against that background, we must be careful with what we are doing because we do not wish to prejudice that contribution in any circumstances.”

Mr Aitken is clearly too close to the legal profession and too in awe of their ‘contribution’ and influence to the Scottish economy as to hold a position of a Committee Convenership, requiring impartiality and surely some support of the public interest rather than lobbying for professions on the idea of increasing their profits and killing off any regulatory reforms ….

It was left to Labour MSP David Whitton to question the wisdom of not implementing a more fairer & wider system for access to justice & legal services, while many MSPs sat by, flummoxed by the intricacies of the debate.

In the light of Bill Aitken’s close friendship and intense admiration of the legal profession itself, particularly the Law Society of Scotland, who used him to put forward amendments designed to kill off reforms to regulation of solicitors, is he the right person, the most impartial person, to be Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s sole Justice Committee ?

Surely the answer to that is a resounding “No“, particularly in the light of Annbel Goldie’s actions last year of resigning the position of Convener, on the basis of a weaker conflict of interest than that which Mr Aitken now has under his belt as lead lobbyist within Holyrood for the Law Society of Scotland.

A greater level of impartiality from Mr MacAskill as the Justice Secretary should also be the order of the day in the debate on access to legal services, rather than what appears from his own words to be blind support for his colleagues in the legal profession.

It is time for the SNP to show they are supporting Scotland and governing for the whole of Scotland, rather than allowing some of their politicians to indulge in blatant protectionism for their ex professional colleagues in the legal industry, which is widely accepted to be rotten to the core in terms of regulation, standards, accountability & trust. If Mr MacAskill cannot achieve that, it falls to Mr Salmond as First Minister to put right.

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Posted by on November 22, 2007 in Politics, Scots Law, Scottish Law

 

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