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MacAskill’s ‘no intention to include Law Society in FOI review’ allows lawyers to keep scandals & criminal records hidden from public scrutiny

23 Mar

Law Society of ScotlandLaw Society of Scotland – How many criminals among their ranks ? Would you allow a rapist, a drunk driver, a serial fraudster or even a paedophile to attend to your legal affairs ? The answer to that question is most probably a resounding “No”. However if left up to the SNP’s Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, there may be no prospect you would ever get to find out one shred of detail including the criminal records of the solicitor trusted with your most intimate legal affairs, as the Minister revealed today, the Law Society of Scotland will retain for now, their exemption from Freedom of Information laws.

Kenny MacAskillKenny MacAskill today suggests continued secrecy on lawyers. Scots Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, apparently angered by continued inquiries on the Law Society’s FOI exemption status, today issued a terse statement ending any public hope of openness reforms for the Scots legal profession’s regulator. His spokesman said : “The Law Society are a professional organisation and are not covered in the Freedom of Information Act. There is no intention to include them in the review.”

SLCC squareSLCC is FOI compliant, Law Society is not. Mr MacAskill’s statement appears to end any hope of real transparency being brought to regulation of the legal profession in Scotland. This leaves Scots consumers of legal services with a nightmare scenario of Government backed secrecy for crooked lawyers in that while the ‘independent’ Scottish Legal Complaints Commission is subject to Freedom of Information legislation, the Law Society of Scotland – who will actually carry out any disciplinary actions or prosecutions ordered after SLCC complaints investigations, remains FOI exempt, rendering most information available on rogue lawyers secret to public inquiries & external scrutiny.

You can read an earlier article I wrote about the Law Society ‘s FOI exemption status here : Consumer protection weakened by lawyers FOI exemption while new Legal Complaints Commission must comply to information laws

The Minister’s stance of earlier today however, contrasts starkly with previous indications from not only Mr MacAskill himself, but also the previous Scottish Executive that the Law Society’s exemption status may well be ended.

Current Justice Secretry MacAskill shared former Minister Cathy Jamieson’s policy on Law Society FOI exemption until today :

Scottish Government attitudes on Law Society FOI exemption 2006 - 2007

ScottishGovernmentWhen asked why there had been an apparent U-turn by the Justice Secretary on the Law Society’s exemption status, a spokesman indicated contrary to earlier statements on the Minister’s behalf, there had in fact been no change in Government policy on the issue of the Law Society’s FOI exemption status, and that it was still open for action to bring the Law Society within the scope of Freedom of Information legislation.

A Scottish Government spokesman said this afternoon : “There is no change in their line on the Law Society or any other organisation – no decisions have been made in respect of extending coverage of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. The Law Society are not currently covered by the Act However, the current discussion around extending coverage should not be seen as a one off. The operation of the Act – particularly in terms of the bodies, is kept under review and contributions/arguments putting forward organisations for consideration are always welcome.”

A legal insider this afternoon questioned the Justice Secretary’s continued exclusion of the Law Society from Freedom of Information laws.

She said : “It is a ridiculous situation for regulation of solicitors and consumer protection that on one hand. we have the Law Society of Scotland FOI exempt, and the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission FOI compliant.”

“I am amazed the Justice Secretary cant seem to get to grips with any issue involving the Law Society and from what I read of previous policy indications, I don’t believe this ‘eternal review’ situation of FOI compliance & exemption will ever see the Law Society subject to FOI requirements in the future because the Law Society does not want to be FOI compliant.”

bikerPolice Officers are subject to FOI, so why not lawyers, judges and the courts ? Any blind guarantees of FOI secrecy for lawyers is highly questionable, given the fact that most other parts of the legal system are indeed subject to Freedom of Information laws. Recently for instance, revelations saw statistics released on the numbers of Police Officers in Scotland who have criminal records . Strangely, while some feel that bashing the Police on FOI matters is ok, the public’s right to find out if their lawyer is a convicted criminal doesn’t seem to merit the same consideration in their eyes, however, it certainly does.

A solicitor who has represented members of the legal profession who have been charged with criminal offences (and in cases, found guilty)was asked for his opinion today on how many members of the Scottish legal profession have criminal records.

He said : “Out of about ten thousand practicing solicitors, you are probably looking at a hundred or more who have been convicted of criminal offences, but if you add paralegals and office staff to the equation the number will jump significantly”.

Your readers will know very well that when it comes to a solicitor being convicted of a criminal offence, we are not talking about trivial matters, we are talking about serious criminal offences. Perhaps clients do have the right to know this information before making their judgement on allowing a solicitor or indeed any other legal services professional to represent their legal interests.”

Surprisingly honest words from a solicitor on how many of his colleagues may have criminal records. I for one would wish to know who exactly it is I am dealing with who will handle my legal business, and many other clients I have spoken to over the years would of course, like to know the full history of their legal agents, which if some had known about earlier, may have saved them some costly decisions to allow what turned out to be a ‘crooked lawyer’ to mishandle their legal affairs to the point of financial ruin.

Surely therefore it must be said : Mr MacAskill, do the right thing. Give the public the right to know all there is to know about their legal representatives – bring the Law Society of Scotland within the scope of Freedom of Information legislation.

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