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Consumer survey reveals most Scots want independent regulation of lawyers, legal services, & introduction of McKenzie Friends in Scottish courts

04 Feb

Which logoWhich? consumer survey reveals Scots want independent regulation of lawyers. MOST SCOTS feel lawyers & legal services should be INDEPENDENTLY REGULATED, according to a survey carried out by the consumer group Which?, echoing their evidence to Holyrood’s Justice Committee during hearings on the Legal Services Bill, which aims to widen public access to justice by opening up Scotland’s long closed monopolistic legal services market, currently controlled by the Law Society of Scotland and its 10,000 member solicitors & law firms.

The Which? survey (pdf) found that around seven in ten Scots (71%) think that legal services should be regulated independently and around six in ten (59%) think it is important that lay people should make up the majority of a profession’s regulator or disciplinary board.

McKenzie Friends for Scotland 3McKenzie Friends for Scotland also supported by most Scots in Which? survey. An even greater percentage of Scots (85%) of those polled supported the campaign to bring McKenzie Friends to Scotland, where people responding to the survey thought it would be useful if a scheme was introduced in Scotland whereby people that couldn’t find or afford a lawyer to represent them in court could have the help and support of a knowledgeable non-lawyer or friend in court (known as a McKenzie Friend) if the judge allows it.

Which? survey found majority support for independent regulation of legal services & McKenzie Friends facility for Scottish Courts :

Which - McKenzie Friends & Legal Services Bill

Which? principal public affairs officer, Julia Clarke, commenting on the results of their survey said : “We think it’s vitally important that legal services in Scotland are regulated by a fully independent body as we feel this is the only way consumers can have complete trust in the system. However, the Legal Services Bill will deliver great improvements for people using legal services in Scotland, and we also look forward to party litigants having the right to the support of a McKenzie Friend in court.”

The Legal Services Bill which came about after Which? lodged a super-complaint with the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) about legal services in Scotland, arguing that existing regulation of the industry was harming consumers’ interests, will enable Scottish consumers to access legal services from a range of organisations, not just traditional law firms.

Scottish GovernmentScottish Government reluctantly proposed access to justice reforms. The Scottish Government however, have been very reluctant to reform legal services in Scotland, due it seems to the likes of Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill’s well known & publicly expressed loyalties to the legal profession and opposition to independent regulation of lawyers. The SNP administration have went onto changed their mind several times over whether to reform legal services in Scotland, and only after the Office of Fair Trading response to the super-complaint, agreeing the reforms proposed by Which? to the Scottish legal services industry would benefit consumers, have the turtle-slow & varying proposals by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill become a bill for Holyrood to consider.

A Scottish Government insider said earlier this week the Law Society remained of the view it should regulate legal services in Scotland, and warned that society officials were continuing a behind the scenes campaign to retain its regulatory powers in the face of stiff public opposition.

He said : “There has been voluminous correspondence & meetings with the Law Society over the regulation question. Clearly they want to keep control even though the general public experience with the Law Society handling complaints is mostly negative.”

You can read an earlier report I wrote on the Law Society’s attempt to remain as regulator of Scotland’s legal services market, here : Consumers & Govt insiders brand Law Society ‘too crooked’ to regulate ‘Tesco Law’ expansion of legal services in Scotland

Law Society of ScotlandLaw Society ‘very bitter’ at losing control over pace of McKenzie Friend debate. A legal insider at the Law Society of Scotland itself said this morning that officials were “very angry” over the pace of the McKenzie Friend issue, which is rumoured to have taken the Law Society by surprise in just how fast the matter has progressed from a petition under consideration at the Scottish Parliament to actual case law where the first use of a McKenzie Friend in a Civil Court action in Scotland was allowed by Lord Woolman during November 2009.

He said : “Personally I view McKenzie Friends as a good thing for Scotland and I welcome the results of the survey by Which? which show most people are in favour of the practice.”

The source also revealed there has been heated discussion at the Law Society’s Edinburgh Headquarters over the McKenzie Friend issue, with senior figures left “very bitter” at losing control over the progress of the McKenzie Friends petition, some apparently fuming with Parliament for “letting this one slip through the net”, effectively smashing the Society’s grip over rights of audience in Scotland.

The legal insider continued : “You might not be surprised at just how far the Law Society have went to prevent the McKenzie Friends issue from entering the public domain and use in the court. I understand several MSPs were privately sounded out by society officials, intent on negatively influencing any wider support at Holyrood for a McKenzie Friend law but it seems the speed of the debate, the Court of Session decision, and publicity over the lack of McKenzie Friends in Scotland has overtaken the society’s blocking tactics this time.”

You can read more about the Law Society of Scotland’s opposition to McKenzie Friends in Scotland, here : ‘Control Freaks’ at Law Society say “No” to McKenzie Friends as Holyrood submission signals resistance to Lord Gill’s civil justice review

You can read my earlier coverage of the Legal Services Bill, here : Legal Services Bill (Scotland) : The story so far

On the matter of McKenzie Friends for Scotland, you can read my earlier coverage here : McKenzie Friends for Scotland : The story so far

Independent regulation of solicitors and the wider legal services market is as I and many others have been saying for years, a must, if consumers are to have the full protection we deserve in Scotland’s legal services market.

At the end of the day, legal services is a business, as lawyers are in it to make money, not simply to uphold the values of justice.

If consumers are to have confidence, and trust in that business, it must be independently regulated by the formation of a body with no ties whatsoever to the legal profession, or sympathetic self regulators who have their own interests in continuing the quagmire of ‘crooked’ self regulation which the Law Society of Scotland have practised for years, directly against the consumers best interests.

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