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Legal Complaints Chief Jane Irvine calls for more powers against ‘crooked lawyers’ after Justice Committee fails to invite ‘independent’ law regulator to Legal Services Bill hearings

22 Jan

Jane IrvineJane Irvine, SLCC Chair. JANE IRVINE, Chair of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission has called for wider powers of complaints handling against ‘crooked lawyers’ particularly on conduct issues, to be given to the beleaguered law complaints quango, in a letter to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee on proposals over regulation contained in the Legal Services Bill. However, in the same letter, Ms Irvine went onto express expressed her ‘disappointment’ over the SLCC not being called to give oral evidence on aspects of the ‘access to justice’ bill, which has now ended its evidence hearings at Holyrood.

Curiously, the Parliament invited, & heard from the two main regulators of Scotland’s legal profession (the Faculty of Advocates & the Law Society of Scotland) who were both notably critical of many aspects of the proposals on complaints handling and regulation of non-lawyers who may enter the expanded legal services market but it seems no one on the Justice Committee wanted to hear or question the SLCC’s similarly critical point of view over much of the bill.

You can read my earlier coverage of the Faculty of Advocate’s appearance at Holyrood on the Legal Services Bill, along with video clips of the hearings, HERE and the Law Society of Scotland’s evidence session, along with video clips of their evidence, HERE. All previous articles on the Legal Services Bill can be found HERE

A spokeswoman for the Justice Committee issued a terse statement to media enquiries on whether the SLCC would be called to give evidence : “It is entirely up to the Justice Committee members to decide who to call to give oral evidence. To date, the Committee has received two written submissions from the SLCC and has not sought to call the SLCC to also give oral evidence however I am aware that the SLCC wishes to give oral evidence, if invited to do so.”

After failing to be called to give evidence, SLCC Chair Jane Irvine issued a second written submission to the Justice Committee, detailing the points the SLCC had wished to make on aspects of the Legal Services Bill.

Jane Irvine said : “The SLCC should have the power under its existing and amended statutory functions to receive, process, refer, investigate and determine complaints. Consumers and legal services providers are effectively being provided with a one-stop shop for making their complaint.”

Ms Irvine continued, expressing hope that the Law complaints body’s jurisdiction could be widened to investigate all complaints (many of us have proposed, campaigned on this point for over a year, however only now does the SLCC think it should have more powers).

SLCCJane Irvine claimed the SLCC is ‘a strong independent body’. Jane Irvine continued : “As the SLCC is a *strong independent body* serving as a single Gateway for legal complaints, regulation could be improved if its jurisdiction was widened to investigate all legal complaints, whether they be conduct, service, handling or the new regulatory type of complaint, about all legal service providers (including CAs). This will ensure consumers and legal services providers know which body has the responsibility for handling complaints and where complaints are to be made in the first instance.”

“The Bill should be an opportunity to make services better for consumers. It should not create more complexity for consumers, nor for the practitioners who serve them. It will be for the SLCC to determine the type of complaint made and against whom, in the same way as the SLCC is doing at present for service, conduct and handling complaints. The SLCC, and not consumers or legal services providers, will then determine whether complaints are about ‘legal services’ or other services, such as financial or accountancy services.“

“Responsibility would be placed on the SLCC to secure regulation of services and consumer redress in circumstances where things go wrong, which should reduce the risk of duplication of activities by regulators. Also, it is not left to the consumer to identify how or if the legal services provider is regulated; they know where to raise their concerns.”

You can read many of my previous reports on the SLCC HERE, which do not exactly portray it as the independent regulator adept at consumer protection which some might claim it to be …

The SLCC Chief then expressed her opinion that the Commission should also be able to investigate conduct complaints against solicitors, which are currently handled by the Law Society of Scotland.

Ms Irvine continued : “The Bill provides for service and conduct complaints to continue to be investigated by separate bodies. The SLCC is of the view that the interests of consumers and legal services providers would be better served if it was to have the right to investigate conduct complaints, in addition to service. It is the SLCC’s experience that a significant proportion of complaints comprise both service and conduct elements …. The SLCC considers that consumers often tend not to distinguish between these aspects and instead have an expectation that all the circumstances of a complaint will be examined by one body.”

Talk about stating the obvious …. and its only taken how many years to realise that one since the LPLA Bill had its Scottish Parliament hearings back in 2006 ?

However, while Jane Irvine now calls for the power to investigate conduct complaints against lawyers, the SLCC has not modified its refusal to investigate mishandled complaints by the Law Society of Scotland and then there’s also the SLCC’s first ever decision, which was to refuse to investigate any complaints prior to 1st October 2008 – hardly a very helpful decision to thousands of clients who suffered at the hands of Law Society complaints whitewashes.

Jane Irvine goes on in her letter to criticise many aspects of how complaints against any “approved regulator” (relating to complaints against non-lawyer legal service providers) will be handled by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, pointing out a number of omissions exist in the proposals contained in the Legal Services Bill on what will be done in the event of complaints against the regulators themselves in the expected event they fail to properly investigate complaints against lawyers or non-lawyers – which given our experience with the Law Society of Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates, and even the SLCC itself, we can surely expect to be the norm.

Jane Irvine pointed out the bill before the Justice Committee lacked any means to even handle complaints against an approved regulator : “There appears to be no procedure laid down in the Bill as to how a delegated complaint against an Approved Regulator is to be dealt with (unlike other complaints which are covered by reference to the 2007 Act). Complaints about Approved Regulators may be of a different nature to service / conduct / handling complaints, therefore a different investigation procedure may be required.”

The SLCC Chief ender her written submission by expressing her disappointment having been left out of the Committee hearings, saying : “I am disappointed not to be called to give evidence given the SLCC’s central role in complaints and conduct handling. The SLCC will continue to have an important role to play at the heart of the regulatory process and I am happy to participate in any further consultation or informal discussions about the Bill and future regulations.”

The written submission from the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission giving detailed evidence on the Legal Services Bill can be downloaded HERE

All written submissions on the Legal Services Bill can be found here : Legal Services Bill written submissions

You can read my own submission on the Legal Services Bill, which deals mainly with regulation HERE (pdf)

It remains however, the Legal Services Bill appears significantly flawed in its approach to regulating both lawyers and non-lawyers, by failing to bring in fully independent regulation of Scotland’s legal services sector, which consumer organisations, campaign groups, clients, and critics of the legal profession have been calling for years to be implemented. Until closed shop self regulation is dropped, Scots will have no consumer protection when it comes to legal services. That much is certain.

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