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Witch-hunt at Legal Complaints Commission ‘ends at MacAskill’s doorstep’ as Justice officials forced to confirm leaks inquiry

05 Mar

SLCC squareSLCC once again under fire. Officials of the Scottish Government’s Justice Department have been forced to admit a series of interventions with the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, over leaks to the media which depict the quango which handles consumer complaints against solicitors as more interested in protecting the legal profession than investigating actual complaints.

Culture of fear at SLCC Feb 2009Diary of Injustice reveals SLCC’s secret leaks inquiry. As I revealed earlier last month, a witch hunt at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission began after the Justice Department ordered an investigation into leaks which began in August 2008, one of which gave details on non Law Society staff at the SLCC who were being subjected to an attempt by the Law Society and Scottish Government to ‘drive them out of the Commission, ensuring total control of the ‘independent’ SLCC by the legal profession itself.

You can read last month’s report on the witch-hunt at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission here : ‘Culture of fear’ grips Scottish Legal Complaints Commission as Justice Department witch-hunt threatens whistleblower staff over leaks to media

You can read my earlier report on the leaks as they began at the SLCC here : Law Society target ‘outsider staff’ for exit at Complaints Commission as lawyers undermine attempts at independent regulation

ScottishGovernmentScottish Government initially denied any involvement. The Scottish Government was asked to explain why it had ordered an investigation at the SLCC, however officials initially sought to play down and deny, several times, that any such investigation, or even discussions between the SLCC and Justice Department took place. A Justice Department official would only admit : “Staffing is a matter for the SLCC. If they have concerns about security of their information then it is a matter for Eileen Masterman and her team.”

SLCC Staff Governance meeting 17 October 2008 - Justice Dept & Risk Management Leaked SLCC papers show Justice Department ordered investigation. However, after initial denials from the Justice Department, a further leaked document quoted an SLCC meeting where mentions of “Action and impact arising from the unauthorised leak of information that was raised by the Justice Dept.” exposed the Government’s account of matters as completely false. Justice Department officials were then hurriedly forced to admit they had directly intervened with the SLCC and demanded immediate action to curb any information reaching the public. Officials sought to justify their attempt to clamp down on dissent at the quango by claiming that when the leaks be some of the staff under suspicion were still employed by Scottish Ministers.

A Justice Department official sought to play down the leaks investigation and protect the Justice Secretary from involvement, claiming : “I had a very brief discussion with Jane Irvine in her capacity as Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman last summer when it seemed from your website and an approach that you made to her that you were receiving information about the Ombudsman’s staff.”

The official went on “These members of staff were at that time employed by Scottish Ministers so it was appropriate that I should be made aware of any concerns. Jane and I discussed whether or not we thought there had been a breach in security and we concluded that there had not been. We agreed that it was unlikely the information was coming from the Ombudsman’s office because it was completely inaccurate and we therefore decided to take no further action.That is why there are no minutes or notes”

However, the Justice Department official had no explanation to offer for how the entire episode came to light in leaked documents from the SLCC (more yet to be published) which reported a meeting where the Justice Department raised the leaks issue and demanded action.

A Justice Department official on being handed a copy of one of the leaked documents said : “I have no idea why the matter was raised at a meeting of the SLCC in October. I was not at the meeting.”

However, an insider at the SLCC countered “That is pure rubbish from the Government’s point of view. We were all warned to shut up after these discussions between Jane Irvine and the Government. The fact of the matter is there has been a lot of inequality between members of staff at the SLCC and the Law Society want everyone out who isn’t under their thumb.”

“Law Society staff who transferred over were being paid higher salaries and were to be considered for more senior positions. Whoever denies that is a liar and they know it, and even though you reported it there is still an undercurrent of mistrust between Law Society staff and non Law Society staff.”

“What I said last year to you stands, the present Scottish Government are simply allowing the Law Society to dictate terms to the SLCC and we are not able to perform our role as was intended under the previous administration which created the SLCC in the first place.”

MacAskill tight lippedJustice Secretary Kenny MacAskill must have known his department intervened with SLCC. A senior source within the Government said however, he doubted the Justice Department’s explanation on the matter and pointed to the leaks of documents, and reports of bitter infighting within the Commission as a direct challenge to the reliability of the Government’s explanations.

He said “I doubt this was left to an official to clear up, considering there is a great deal of interest in your reporting of the matter and criticisms of regulation of the legal profession”.

“I understand the Cabinet Secretary for Justice knows all about what took place and probably wants to shut the whole discussion on leaks down because ultimately the quango is his responsibility and the people there are at his appointment.These reports of problems at the Commission are making life very difficult for those who want to keep control of regulating lawyers for themselves.”

“Clearly responsibility for this rests with Kenny MacAskill himself no matter who tries to throw themselves into the path of the oncoming train and the Law Society has to be stopped from gaining full control of the Commission if the public are to be properly protected”

The insider went on to refer to claims in the Justice Department’s statement there were “no minutes or notes” of the Government’s intervention with the SLCC on the leaks issue.

He said : “It is preposterous to claim there are no minutes or notes of such a matter given the importance of it and implications for the SLCC and the Justice Department and why did they even put such a thing in their statement. I regret to say I sense this issue is being covered up deliberately to protect people here in Government, at the SLCC and probably at the Law Society.”

Jane IrvineSLCC Chairman Jane Irvine. The Commission’s Chairman, Jane Irvine was asked for comment on the situation, but refused. This does seem to leave the obvious impression the Commission is indeed in crisis, amid staffing problems, threats of resignation by its own members unless they get increased financial perks & insurance protection, and the intense layer of secrecy which the Commission has been operating under, seeking to blank out most Freedom of Information requests specifically to law journalists while releasing the same information to elements of the legal profession.

A brief history of leaked reports relating to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission :

The story that started the ball rolling on leaks at the SLCC : Law Society target ‘outsider staff’ for exit at Complaints Commission as lawyers undermine attempts at independent regulation

Scottish Legal Complaints CommissionSLCC members demanded more perks or would resign. You can read an earlier article where the Commission members threatened their resignation over lack of perks and insurance cover, here : Legal Complaints Commission in crisis amid funds shortage & resignation threats over lack of insurance protection. The resignation threats came even though the SLCC had received a whopping £2 million of public money, and yet more was being paid in by the Scottish Government for demanded perks, as I reported here : MacAskill silent on taxpayers £2million ‘write off’ to lawyers quango as Complaints boss reveals Law Society defaulted on levies

I also reported that insiders to the Commission don’t even believe the SLCC is up to the job because of too much interference from the legal profession and a lack of will at the Scottish Government to protect it’s intended role, which you can read here : Insiders attack MacAskill’s Legal Complaints Commission as ‘a front’ while millions go on quango which refuses to investigate crooked lawyers

Lets also not forget the SLCC seems to be so mired in problems it has to rely on a veil of secrecy to continue its operations, as I reported here : FOI disclosures censored to law journalists as MacAskill’s legal complaints commission prefers secrecy to public accountability

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2 responses to “Witch-hunt at Legal Complaints Commission ‘ends at MacAskill’s doorstep’ as Justice officials forced to confirm leaks inquiry

  1. aweehintohelp

    March 5, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Mr. Cherbi, you raise a very serious matter in this article. I wonder why this issue has not received any coverage in The Scotsman or The Herald in light of the importance of the core issue which you have exposed.

    I summarise the point as follows:-

    – If my recollection is correct, this was supposed to be an “Independent” commission.

    – If my recollection is correct, at the time of its creation (whilst the legislation was in the process of being enacted) there were threats of legal action from the Law Society of Scotland and considerable alarm expressed by certain Judicial sources regarding the “independence of the legal profession” with particular reference being made to the possible threat to that “independence” posed by the Government’s executive’s involvement in the establishment and funding of this new “independent” comission.

    – I recollect that the above alarm was given wide coverage by the two newspapers mentioned above.

    It is manifest that such interference from the Justice Department has occurred and that the Justice Department has been less than frank (if not dishonest) in its representations to the public in respect of this interference.

    I deliberately use the word “manifest” under reference to the SLCC memo to which you have conveniently provided a link – and I do so with particular reference to the Memo’s paragraph numbered “2.” entitled “Risk Management” and the 2nd Bullet point thereunder which states:- “Action and impact arising from unauthorised leak of information THAT WAS RAISED BY THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT.” (my emphasis).

    Once again, I ask the question, why has nothing been heard from those same sources (Law Soc/Judicial) in respect of the manifest interference in the operation of the SLCC by the Justice Department, and why have the Scotsman and Heral remained silent on this issue?

    Your investigative journalism in respect of this issue is to be commended Mr. Cherbi. Well done and keep up the excellent work.

     
  2. petercherbi

    March 5, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    #aweehintohelp

    I think the answer to your question is simply that many media outlets are afraid to take on the Law Society these days.

    If you read some of the earlier stories of corruption in the legal profession which appeared in the newspapers before 2003, you will notice a marked difference from what came later .. virtually no exposes on ‘crooked lawyers’ in the broadsheets, but plenty in the tabloids .. and now we have a ‘do nothing except protect lawyers’ Justice Secretary, its more important than ever the general media get back in the game.

    While there are people in powerful positions who have expressed alarm at the SLCC’s problems, and reluctance to do the job it was created to do, the problem of having an movable Justice Secretary who favours his colleagues in the legal profession over the public interest, are now clearly visible. I doubt there will be a change in such policies until Mr MacAskill is replaced but on that note, I don’t believe the First Minister has the power, or will to make such a Ministerial change, given the numbers in Parliament.

     

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