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Consumer protection in doubt as Scottish Government continue ‘go slow’ on legal regulation reforms

27 Aug

It has been revealed the intention of Government providing the public with added consumer protection in the form of independent investigation of complaints against lawyers in recent legislation has come to a grinding halt.

The Scottish Government’s handling of the formation process of what was to be the ‘independent’ Scottish Legal Complaints Commission has been condemned by some as “little more than a back room coffee break”, where officials and Ministers have lacked the understanding or will to proceed with proper implementation of legislation arising from the stormy 2006 Justice 2 Committee investigation of regulation inside Scotland’s notoriously corrupt legal profession of which you can read more about here : Parliament debates complaints against the legal profession

So poor the effort which has been made by Kenny MacAskill’s Justice Department, the legal profession itself has been allowed to take over most of the process, arguing at each stage it must have control over regulation of complaints at all costs, overriding any plans to give ordinary Scots a greater degree of safety in dealing with solicitors.

Some of my earlier articles reporting the demise of the SLCC before it even begins its work :

Law Society ‘writes rules’ for Scottish Legal Complaints Commission as confidence drops in new regulator

Rough Justice for clients as new complaints commission refuses to investigate cases mishandled by Law Society

While most consumers and campaigners felt they would be getting a fairer deal under the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, which created the new ‘independent’ Commission charged with investigating service complaints against Scotland’s 10,500 solicitors, in reality little will change due to the Law Society’s successful work in infiltrating the SLCC with around 40 members of its staff who for years have operated under the Law Society’s policy to damage and destroy client complaints against solicitors at any cost.

You can read some more about the problems surrounding the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission here : The not so independent Scottish Legal Complaints Commission

One of the reasons perhaps that so many lawyers across Scotland will happily pay around £307 as their annual levy to the new Scottish Legal Complaints Commission to ensure complaints are dealt with by … their colleagues from the Law Society of Scotland who are being parachuted in by the Law Society to keep control over complaints against lawyers.

You can read more about how Jane Irvine, the Chairman of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission feels the SLCC can ‘serve’ the public in an ‘independent’ capacity in the Law Society’s ‘Journal’ website here : On the scent …. an interview which seems to indicate the SLCC will be on a short leash from the Law Society despite claims of ‘independence’.

As things stand, there seems little or no effort on the part of the Scottish Government to do anything about the lack of independent regulation in the legal profession, which has seen spiraling levels of financial frauds against clients by solicitors, to the point that conducting legal business in Scotland is now widely seen as unsafe and to be avoided, after continuing scandals in both Scotland’s civil and criminal legal systems reach uncontrollable proportions.

A leading consumer representative asked for his thoughts on the weak consumer protection for clients of legal services in Scotland gave the following slamming indictment of just how troubled the Scots legal profession is : “You would be better withdrawing £2000 cash from your bank account and burning it in your garden than using the current framework of legal services in Scotland – because both actions now produce the same result … a waste of money and a considerable degree of personal harm.”

This is certainly bad news for us all, as at one stage or another we all need legal representation but to find trustworthy legal representation in Scotland seems to be harder than finding a needle in a haystack – a needle fast becoming a rarity taking into account some of the emails I receive from people who find themselves being ripped off right left and centre by lawyers whom the Law Society of Scotland will do nothing about.

With recent further refusals to allow applicants other than solicitors into the legal services market, along with stalling by Mr MacAskill on the Law Society’s FOI exemption, which will run past 1st October 2008 while the allegedly ‘independent’ SLCC will be FOI compliant .. the prospect of any consumer protection against rogue lawyers does not look good under the current regime where there appears to be no will to be seen to do the right thing and give the public a helping hand in complaints against rogue lawyers.

In all this delay, and prevarication by the legal profession for increased consumer protection, there has to be of course, a motive. The motive, simply, is money.

If you increase regulation or bring in independent regulation, the chances are the scams, client frauds, overcharging and poor service which is normally associated with legal firms in Scotland will go down, affecting lawyers personal income and profits .. just the same as would happen if the Scottish legal services market was opened up to competition – another issue still on the stalling books.

The reasons for Mr MacAskill’s go slow on reform of the Scottish legal profession thus become clear .. its all about money and protecting one’s colleagues share of the market, even at the expense of the public and the integrity of justice itself, as the following report from today’s Herald seems to show …

Law firms still making large profits despite the downturn

DAMIEN HENDERSON August 27 2008

Scottish law firms have posted huge profits over the past year in spite of the economic downturn that has engulfed the UK economy.

In a survey of the UK’s 100 largest law firms, equity partners at Scottish companies made an average of £343,000 profit, a 4% increase on the previous year, according to Legal Business magazine.

However, despite the current “rude health” of the UK’s legal profession, the magazine warned that Scottish companies were among those which would face uncertainty as the UK’s economic woes continue.

Among the companies that appear to be thriving amid the credit crunch are Dundas & Wilson – Scotland’s largest law firm – which saw a 23% increase in turnover to £74.8m.

The firm’s profit margin of 41% was the largest of the top 10 Scottish companies included in the survey. Equity partners at the firm – those that take a share in profits – made an average of £379,000 each.

This year also saw Brodies, Scotland’s fastest-growing law firm, see its turnover increase by 23% to £37m compared to last year.

However, Tods Murray saw a drop in turnover for the second consecutive year, taking the company out of the Legal Business top 100 list.

James Baxter, editor of Legal Business, said: “Taken at face value the UK legal community looks to be in rude health: UK firms compete well overseas, firms are billing well and clients are broadly happy paying.

But dark clouds are on the horizon.

“Managing partners from some of the UK’s largest firms have told Legal Business that they would be happy to achieve zero growth in the next 12 months, meaning that most are expecting to report a drop in profitability for the first time in a decade.

“The credit crunch, whilst not showing much impact on this year’s figures, has UK law firms worried.

“There are precious few deals being done, the usually lucrative financial services markets have dried-up, and the commercial property market has all but stalled.”

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