Consumer protection ‘a low priority’ as law firms call for split from Law Society masks solicitors power grab for Scots legal services market

06 Mar

Law Society of ScotlandLaw Society of Scotland faces division over Legal Services reform. LEGAL SERVICES REFORM which would bring Scots wider access to justice is facing a new , if perhaps temporary hurdle as several solicitors & law firms who are upset over the plans contained in the Scottish Government’s Legal Services Bill, call for a break away from the Law Society of Scotland, who are now being accused of not representing solicitors best interests, by not protecting the ‘independence’ of Scotland’s legal profession – which actually translates into not protecting solicitors current monopoly over consumers access to justice.

The Legal Services Bill, which you can read more about in my previous reports HERE, if passed by the Scottish Parliament, will effectively allow much wider competition in Scotland’s currently ‘solicitor only’ dominated legal services market, freeing consumers from being forced to use a member solicitor or law firm of the Law Society of Scotland to gain access to justice or legal services.

In a reformed legal services market, banks, supermarkets and others will be able to provide Scots consumers with legal services at costs much less than those currently charged by law firms controlled by the Law Society of Scotland, who are now more widely known for their failures to represent clients best interests while charging huge fees for little work, than achieving actual successes for clients who often end up worse off than before they walked in the lawyers front door.

Those leading the call to split from the Law Society are the Glasgow Bar Association, the Govan Law Centre, along with two Glasgow law firms, MacRoberts & Thomsons , all warning that introducing Legal Services Reform to Scotland (the same reforms introduced in England & Wales during 2007 with much less fuss) will undermine centuries of independent legal representation in Scotland. While client & consumer protection appear very low down on the list of priorities in this argument which is essentially between law firms & the Law Society vying for control over the consumers right to choose their legal representative, the Glasgow Bar Association have now called for a referendum for all solicitors to decide whether the Law Society of Scotland should represent their interests.

Now that certain sections of Scotland’s antiquated, monopolistic legal services market realise their income & influence via the current business model is under threat, a drive is underway by solicitors to influence members of the Scottish Parliament to vote against the Legal Services Bill, citing among the arguments, that Government Ministers will be able to interfere in the selection of members of the Council of the Law Society, where up to 20% of the 60 will be made up of members of the public Government stooges, who could be picked according to criteria set by ministers – just like we saw at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, where the Law Society managed to stuff the SLCC with its own people as I reported earlier here : Call for MacAskill appointments ‘sleaze investigation’ as revelations show Legal Complaints Commission member was subject of Police inquiry

The problem with that argument about Ministerial interference however, is as you can see that despite Ministers apparently having the power to make independent selections, they always appear to select more stooges from the profession itself, so in reality nothing much will change, other than perhaps certain sections of the legal profession not being able to stuff the Council of the Law Society as they have always been used to doing …

Clearly solicitors don’t want anyone other than solicitors on the Law Society’s ‘Council’, although that would be fine with me if the Law Society were to be stripped of its regulatory & disciplinary role, and left to be nothing more than a representative union for solicitors, rather than the all controlling, all powerful, all crooked regulator it has always been.

An official from one of Scotland’s consumer organisations branded the current debate ‘a diversion’ and accused certain sections of the legal profession from trying to obstruct reforms which would lead to greater consumer choice and protection from Scotland’s notoriously poor legal services market.

He said : “Clearly certain sections of the legal profession seem intent on staging a coup for control of the Law Society in an attempt to thwart much needed reforms to Scotland’s legal services market. This is purely a selfish move designed to promote the interests of solicitors over consumer choice.”

He continued : “The only way to resolve the fears of solicitors in this debate would be to strip the Law Society of its regulation role and that of representing clients best interests, steps we would wholeheartedly welcome.”

Ian SmartLaw Society President Ian Smart – independence is essential. The response from the Law Society of Scotland was to claim it had always promoted independence of the legal profession as being fundamental to its support of the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill. Mr Smart said : “In its response to the Bill and during parliamentary evidence sessions, the Society insisted that independence is essential and that the role of the Lord President should be strengthened to ensure that this remains the case. The Society will continue to lobby changes to section 92, which has been raised as a concern by both the Society and its members.

Mr Smart continued : “The Bill as it currently stands provides ministers with powers to make regulations which could specify the criteria they considered appropriate for appoint ability and the number of lay members on Council and can prescribe a minimum number or proportion if they believe such a prescription is necessary. Before these regulations are made, Scottish ministers would have to consult with Council, the Lord President, OFT and other consumer bodies. That would only be the case if the Society failed to implement section 92 properly. Only the Society can appoint any lay members to the Council, not Scottish ministers. It should be remembered that most other professional bodies have for many years appointed lay members because of the qualities, expertise and talent they bring, including the GMA (General Medical Council, GDA (General Dentists ‘ Council), ICAS (accountants), RICS (surveyors) and the BMA (British Medical Council), which although is a representative body also has large patient representative committees.”

“It may be difficult to accept any input by politicians into how the Society functions, despite it being a body set up by statute, but the 20% lay membership on Council, which will become part of the Society’s obligations, was decided by Council members and has been agreed as appropriate by ministers. This is despite continued pressure from the consumer lobby for somewhere between 50% to 75% of lay membership on the Society’s council. Lay members have also been on the Society’s regulatory committees for around 20 years and all now have 50% lay membership. Non-regulatory committees are predominantly made up of practicing solicitors.”

“None of this represents a handing over of independence of Scotland’s largest legal profession and taking an antagonistic stance does not help negotiate any long term benefits for the profession.”

If solicitors are going to have a say in who represents them, without giving any regard as to who will represent the very clients who fund their ill deserved lavish offices & law firms, perhaps clients and consumers should also be able to have a referendum on who they want to regulate legal services and handle complaints against the legal profession.

Which logoWhich? revealed recently most want independent regulation of legal services. We already know from research which has already taken place on this issue, some of it dating back over a decade from the Scottish Consumer Council, to current research undertaken by UK consumer organisation Which?, consumers have always wanted a fully independent regulator of legal services in Scotland, rather than the half way, hapless, ‘just as crooked’ Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, which now ranks among most clients as Law Society MkII when it comes to dealing with complaints against solicitors.

Only fully independent regulation of Scotland’s legal services market will resolve these and many other problems faced by consumers and solicitors alike but as we have seen from the dithering Justice Secretary, fully independent regulation of solicitors is apparently a step too far for Mr MacAskill who according to his own civil servants, is too busy purging the Justice Department than addressing issues affecting Scots access to justice …

For more on this story, read THIS REPORT in the Herald


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