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Law Society SGM no-vote washout : Legal Services should be treated like any other business as consumers demand wider access to justice

25 Mar

Law Society of ScotlandLaw Society of Scotland’s meeting washed out with no vote. It will come as little surprise to most that today’s Special General Meeting of the Law Society of Scotland, called by the Scottish Law Agents Society to vote on the Law Society’s own ‘alleged’ support for the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill, turned out to be less of a confrontation, rather more the expected fudge predicted by many, as well as a complete washout in terms of furthering consumer’s wider choice & access to legal services in Scotland.

Rather than the imminent break up of the Law Society, hoped for by some in the legal profession (and many outside it), the adjourned SGM at Murrayfield ended up agreeing to seek more talks on ‘building a consensus’ between those opposed to & those in favour of the Legal Services Bill’s proposals of alternative business structures, where law firms will be allowed via the new legislation, to bring in outside capital investment, and possibly end up being owned by non-lawyers (obviously a horrifying prospect to lawyers !).

Ian SmartLaw Society President Ian Smart – ‘not possible to reach agreement’. It was reported that discussions took place during an extended break and when the meeting resumed, Society President Ian Smart announced that although it was not possible to reach agreement on the spot, both sides were willing to keep talking to see if an agreed position could be found and the meeting was adjourned, amid protests the adjournment would remove the voices of around 3,000 solicitors who had sent in proxy forms to enable them to vote on the original SLAS motion, which called for the Law Society to change its stance over supporting alternative business structures (abs) in the Legal Services Bill – a stance the SLAS believe threatens independence of the legal profession.

The feeling remains however, in all these headlines on the battles between the Law Society and various factions of the legal profession, consumers are being left as spectators of what really amounts to a lot of red herrings, lots of smoke & mirrors, diversions from the real arguments, the real fears, the real worries of solicitors, that once legal services are available in Tesco, Morrisons, Asda, or even, Lidl, law firms might find their clients are off to the supermarket for a quick shop along with a quick house purchase, or quick, cheap, advice session on how to handle a legal issue, instead of engaging a solicitor and going through endless appointments, endless letters, endless court appearances, endless fee demands, endless complaints, and well, no end in sight to the issue which brought them into their solicitor’s office in the first place …

Cutting costs, giving consumers wider choice & rights to access justice & legal services is obviously a good thing for consumers. If solicitors are keen to compete with others offering legal services, then reducing fees, vastly increasing success rates & vastly decreasing the time it takes to conduct clients cases, or litigation, might help attract customers back to law firms. Competition is good .. and it might even raise standards in the profession, which the Law Society seem not to be able to achieve on its own.

It should come as no surprise however, that desperate times provoke desperate arguments from the legal profession (or at least its governing body) to maintain a grip over control of access to legal services in Scotland, with recently the Law Society’s President, Ian Smart arguing that legal services, and access to them, should be treated as much more than a business, as I reported last week : “We have also maintained that consumers must be protected and that access to justice is a priority – legal services is not and cannot be seen as a purely commercial activity.”

On closer inspection, Mr Smith’s argument holds little support outside the Law Society’s sphere of influence.

“Consumers must be protected”. Speaking from the consumer’s point of view … Yes, consumers do need to be protected, from you & your colleagues, Mr Smart. However, only a fully independent regulator of legal services in Scotland can protect consumers from legal services, because the Law Society of Scotland and now the Law Society ‘ infected’ Scottish Legal Complaints Commission are just not up to the job.

“Access to justice is a priority”. No its not. It should be, but its not, not anyway while the current legal services model exists its not. Access to justice under the current system, where solicitors & law firms dominate the legal services market is only granted to clients or consumers if a solicitor thinks they have a chance of making money out of their case, not just because someone comes through the door of a solicitor’s office and claims their rights have been violated, or they need to take legal action to resolve a difficulty, injury, issue of negligence, or require to be helped in some other way.

Access to justice in all of those cases, and indeed any imaginable instance, is only a priority if the solicitor thinks so, and justification for taking the client’s issue further will inevitably be judged on a commercial basis. No chance of making money out of you ? Then the solicitor cannot or will not undertake the work. Not much of a priority of access to justice there …

“Legal Services is not and cannot be seen as a purely commercial activity”. Just why is that ? Do law firms offer legal services simply out of goodwill and without any regard to commercial factors and with no motive other than to serve the greater community at large, represent the interests of justice and fight vigorously for the rights of individuals ? Obviously not. Going to a lawyer and accessing legal services is (or at least should be) as commercial an activity as going to the post office to buy a stamp, or buying a train ticket and travelling from A to B.

Legal Services is a business, Mr Smart. Get over it.

However, until we hear the issue of consumer’s best interests being talked about in this debate, you can be sure the consumer & fee paying client, will always come last to the interests of the legal profession … leading to more concessions to the Law Society from the Scottish Government in the weeks to come as the Legal Services Bill travels through the Scottish Parliament.

Funnily enough, the Law Society will then claim it was their work which ‘won’ the even more yet-to-announced, well rehearsed ‘concessions’ from the Scottish Government, and thus maintain its existence to fight another day ….

You can read my own coverage of the Legal Services Bill here : Legal Services Bill for Scotland – The story so far

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