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Scotsman Legal Debate : Complaints chief ‘left speechless’ over file shredding claims as solicitors struggle to regain public confidence

28 Nov

On Monday of this week, the Scotsman held a live legal ‘debate’ on the future of the legal profession and the Scottish legal services market.The ‘debate’, which opens the nominations for the legal awards 2009, where you might even be able to nominate Scotland’s most crooked lawyer, was intended as a “Have Your Say” on the state of the legal profession.

Sadly however, spectators and guests alike coming out of the meeting claimed the ‘debate’ such as it was, did nothing to address the public’s continued scepticism over attempts by the Scottish Government and the legal profession itself to reform the way in which solicitors are regulated in Scotland.

The tone of the debate, as one solicitor himself put it seemed to be that of a self congratulatory pat on the back, for avoiding the creation of a completely independent regulator which may have ended up exposing the vast amount of corruption in complaints & the poor handling of client affairs which many associate with the Scots legal profession.

However, consumers & clients, concerned over the lack of progress in reforming the legal profession, and access to justice in Scotland, cited examples such as the huge numbers of client complaints and continuing almost daily scandals portraying many of Scotland’s legal firms to be either crooked or incompetent at their job, coupled with the Law Society’s inability to raise standards of service in what is now recognised as one of the worst quality legal services markets in the developed world, as being issues which to the panel members present at the ‘debate’, seemed unwilling to address.

One bright point of the night was a question from the floor to Jane Irvine, the Chairman of the ‘independent’ Scottish Legal Complaints Commission on why during her time as Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman, she had done little over the Law Society of Scotland allowing solicitors to shred and destroy files before & during an investigation, in a practice which surely borders on the criminal.

The apparently acceptable practice of solicitors destroying files before & during Law Society investigations was compared to the recent example of the Conrad Black case where it was alleged there had been mass destruction of files, inevitably leading to Blacks’ guilty verdict and jail term, and Jane Irvine was asked what steps she had taken to deal with the matter.

Unsurprisingly, Mrs Irvine was “left speechless” as one onlooker put it … as it has emerged there has been nothing done since the issue was mentioned in her annual report of 2006-2007, covered here and there has not even been a report made to the Police & Crown Office, despite a ‘memorandum of understanding’ which states that all criminal activities must be reported to the authorities.

No doubt for the sake of consumer protection, and not least the definition of the word “Honesty”, the SLCC will amend this policy of allowing rogue solicitors to shred their files or selectively delete parts of files before they are handed over to clients upon request. However, when they will get around to doing that, is anyone’s guess …

While the ‘debate’ dragged on with questions coming mostly from the Chair rather than the floor, notable lack of mentions included a decision by the SLCC to engage with the notorious insurers Marsh UK on presentations to the Commission over the workings of the corrupt Master Insurance Policy which insures Scottish solicitors against negligence & financial damages claims from clients.

You can read more about the Master Insurance Policy here : Previous articles on the Master Policy

The corrupt practices of the Master Policy and the Law Society’s part in restricting or blocking client’s access to legal representation against its own crooked lawyers was, it seems, too hot and honest a topic for the ‘debate’ on Monday, but as I remember well, there was a time when the Scotsman did not shrink from such controversial issues, such as is covered here : How the Scotsman once honestly covered the legal profession

Eileen Masterman Also failing in a mention at the ‘debate’ was the SLCC’s Chief Executive, Eileen Masterman (pictured from a Which? article) refusal so far to allow potentially hundreds of client victims of the Law Society’s ‘Master Policy’ to make an equivalent presentation to the Commission on their appalling experiences with access to justice and the insurance claims process against crooked lawyers.

It may do Mrs Masterman some good to note and reflect on the fact it was the same terrible experiences experiences of clients and the public with the Law Society of Scotland and the Master Policy, which the current Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney aired at the Justice 2 Committee hearings into the passage of the legislation, which created the Commission and gave Mrs Masterman her current job & salary.

One guest at the debate who left with a feeling it didn’t go the way the Law Society figures present wanted, made the following comment: ”The Vice President of the Society (Ian Smart) was positively boiling with rage – he kept it disguised, but he knew that the wee public relations event was a shambles, akin to a puppets convention”

Another guest who attended was highly critical of the SLCC, and unimpressed with the Scottish Government’s efforts to give the public a measure of fair & independent regulation of the legal profession.

He spoke out against Jane Irvine’s input into the debate : “Irvine, the SLCC Chairman appeared a complete non-entity. She spoke with sufficient ‘expression’ that just about belied the emptiness of content in her words which sounded like a script she’d been given to read out to a room full of lawyers who all know the game is all about protecting their backs after they are caught out fleecing their clients.”

Martyn Evans, Director of Consumer Focus Scotland who also attended the ‘debate’ managed a few critical remarks, and agreed that some of the questions raised in the debate by clients of solicitors who were dissatisfied with how complaints were being handled, were those kinds of issues which represented the majority of communications that his organisation (the former Scottish Consumer Council) had been receiving for years – and that this ‘reflected the fact that the Law Society had nothing to be proud about in its prior conduct of complaints handling.’

Sadly however, Mr Evans indicated ‘he preferred to look forward, as looking backwards would not assist progress to making the future better’, so clearing up the sins of the past doesn’t seem to be on the minds of Consumer Focus Scotland for now.

Consumer Focus Scotland were contacted for a comment on the debate – they refused.

Perhaps, as one experienced journalist put it who also failed to get a comment out of the Consumer Focus camp – “They have been told not to rock the boat or support any moves to recompense or reconsider past cases of complaints against solicitors, due to the sheer volume and corruption which has taken place over the years at the Law Society of Scotland”.

So at the end of the day, the ‘debate’, such as it was, didn’t really do much to give anyone hope the future of Scotland’s legal profession and legal services market would be any better than it is now .. and that is simply not good enough.

As it stands, with apparently even Consumer organisations being told to sweep the dirt under the carpet, clients of solicitors might do well to save themselves from any further harm from the veritable army of rogue lawyers out there, by taking their legal business elsewhere, or holding off using a crooked lawyer, until an honest one comes along …

Here follows the story from the Scotsman which advertised the ‘debate’, on the same day … you could just tell it was going to be one of those ‘don’t raise the big issue’ meetings …. and look out for the ‘other’ version of how the ‘debate’ went sometime next week in the paper itself …

Jennifer Veitch: Have your say in debate on state of the profession

EVEN if it was possible to forget about the recession, there has been no shortage of challenges facing lawyers and those who depend upon their services.

Tonight, Scotsman readers will have a rare opportunity to ask a panel comprising some of the key figures in the profession – and those tasked with keeping a close eye on what it is getting up to – what the future holds both for solicitors and their clients.

As I am chairing the debate, I have been reflecting on some of the big issues that are likely to come up.

From the point of view of consumers (and that includes me), one of the biggest is likely to be just how is the new complaints landscape shaping up?

Following widespread and ultimately insurmountable public cynicism about the Law Society’s ability to carry out impartial investigations into complaints about its own members, the new Scottish Legal Complaints Commission opened for business just over a month ago.

Commission chair Jane Irvine will be on hand to give a progress report on how the complaints gateway has fared during its first weeks in operation and to answer queries as to what the new rules and regulations will mean in practice for lawyers and consumers.

Joining her on the panel will be Ian Smart, vice-president of the Law Society, who will be able to give his perspective as a practising solicitor – and may want to take the opportunity to point out that there has been a downward trend in complaints in recent years.

Nevertheless, the audience might well want to know what the society is doing to drive up standards in the profession – a project that is due to come to fruition next year – and to prevent service complaints from cropping up in the first place.

With the recession kicking in, law firms have their part to play in growing Scotland’s economy, so perhaps the most pressing issue that the Law Society and firms now want some clarity about is what the advent of alternative business structures will mean for the future.

Following last year’s Which? supercomplaint to the Office of Fair Trading, solicitors are now awaiting the Scottish Government’s proposals for ABS, which could allow non-lawyers to be partners or investors in firms.

Panel member Martyn Evans, director of Consumer Focus Scotland, will be well-placed to set out the arguments in favour of deregulation to increase choice and drive down prices for clients.

Morton Fraser chief executive and CBI Scotland vice-chair Linda Urquhart will bring her unique perspective on ABS and other issues to the panel. Just what does the Scottish Government need to do in order to support firms competing in the UK and around the world?

Solicitor advocate John Scott, a partner with Capital Defence and a high-profile campaigner on human rights, will doubtless have much to say on the potential impact of ABS on access to justice. Legal aid funding, and the impact of recent changes to summary legal aid are also likely to be high up on his agenda.

Amid all the economic doom and gloom, there is also the question of who will provide legal services in the future – is the profession doing enough to nurture talent, or has the LLB been devalued by the increase in students graduating from Scottish law schools?

Will the Law Society’s proposals to shake-up education and training really serve to improve the diversity of the profession? And, crucially for recent diploma graduates, will a more robust traineeship only make it less attractive for firms to take on aspiring solicitors?

While tonight’s event is designed to shine a bright light on what could and should be improved in the Scottish legal profession, it should not be forgotten that there is also much to celebrate.

The debate marks the official launch of the 2009 Legal Awards to be held in Edinburgh next March. Entries are open now – who would you nominate?

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