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‘Anti-consumer theatre’ goes on as lawyers narrowly vote through Law Society support for ‘Tesco Law’ Legal Services Bill proposals

08 Apr

Law Society of ScotlandLaw Society of Scotland saw close vote. The Law Society of Scotland has managed to survive to fight another day (for now) after 2,245 of its solicitor members voted to support the Society’s ‘current policy’ of supporting the Scottish Government’s Legal Services (Scotland) Bill, which aims to bring wider consumer access to justice in Scotland by introducing non-lawyers into the legal services market, while also allowing the current crop of law firms to seek outside capital & investors for their businesses.

Ian SmartLaw Society President Ian Smart. Ian Smart, President of the Law Society of Scotland, said in a Press Release : “The narrowness of the result clearly illustrates just how the issue has brought out widely divergent views across the profession. While there have been a few heated remarks on the wider fringes of the debate, I believe that the vast majority of solicitors still wish to try and find a united way forward. These results will therefore inform the ongoing policy debate which will also continue both in private and reconvened special general meeting later this month.

He continued : “There are, I believe, already areas of consensus on some models of ABS but more work still requires to be done to find an overall solution to what is, undoubtedly, one of the most important issues faced by the Society in my more than 30 years of professional life. Trying to find an agreement will continue to be the number one priority of all of us within the leadership of the Society.”

This is how the vote actually turned out on the referendum on Alternative Business Structures :

Question 1 : “Do you support in principle the introduction of Alternative Business Structures (“ABSs”) to Scotland as long as there are appropriate safeguards to protect the core values of the legal profession and there is an equivalence of regulation between ABSs and traditional firms ?”

In response to the first referendum question 2,245 solicitors voted in favour of the introduction of alternative business structures, as long as there are appropriate safeguards, while 2,221 voted against.

Scottish GovernmentVote by lawyers is seen as attempt to gain more concessions against consumer choice of legal services from Scottish Government. While the Law Society narrowly secured the vote, it did so on the basis there will be more concessions from the Scottish Government on the Legal Services Bill, more concessions which will effectively translate into a watering down of the proposals not only on the ‘safeguards over who owns law firms’ issue, which according to one senior Government insider “is really a bit of a smoke screen by solicitors who actually want the issue of non-lawyer entrants into the Scottish legal services market scaled back”, thus restricting wider consumer choice before it is even enabled.

Question 2 : “In the event that the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill enabling ABSs to operate as Licensed Providers is passed into law, should the Law Society of Scotland apply to be a Regulator of such Licensed Providers?

On the second question, according to the Law Society, a decisive 81% of votes were in favour of the Society applying to be a regulator of ABSs if they are introduced.

The 4m Crooked Lawyer - Daily Record 1991Allowing Law Society to continue regulating legal services would leave clients facing ‘same old crooked regulator of same old crooked lawyers’. Unsurprisingly, while the vote on the first question of safeguards over non-lawyers owning legal firms was narrow, the second vote on ensuring the Law Society of Scotland will be ‘apply’ to be the Scottish Government’s ‘approved regulator’ of new non-lawyer entrants into the legal services market passed by a significant margin, leaving the prospect for Scottish consumers the Law Society of Scotland, that failed, notoriously corrupt self regulator of solicitors who have whitewashed tens of thousands of complaints against ‘crooked lawyers’ over the years, will again be the first stop for any poor client who finds themselves in difficulty at the hands of one of the new style non-lawyer legal firms to emerge if the Legal Services Bill passes the Scottish Parliament.

If only consumers & clients could have a referendum, without any interference from the legal profession itself, what would we say about the situation of having to use the same anti-client Law Society of Scotland to investigate complaints against non-lawyer legal firms ?

An official from one of Scotland’s consumer organisations condemned the whole affair as “nothing more than a piece of anti consumer theatre staged by the legal profession to blackmail the Scottish Government into watering down the plans for wider consumer access to justice”.

While some solicitors leading the fight against the Law Society’s ‘public’ stance over the Legal Services Bill have claimed the vote was ‘nobbled’, the problems for the Society are not over yet as the Special General Meeting, originally called for by the Scottish Law Agents Society, adjourned mid-vote at its first hearing at Murrayfield, is now to go ahead once more on 16 April 2010 at 10am at the Sheraton Hotel in Edinburgh. Consumers obviously not invited …

To some spectators, the squabble between factions of the legal profession over the Legal Services Bill may seem as an internal affair, however the passage of the bill will, or at least, should, usher in greater choice of legal services for Scotland’s consumers, who have long been held hostage by the solicitors who dominate Scotland’s closed shop legal services market, forcing anyone who requires access to justice to use a Law Society member solicitor, as there has been no alternative to that arrangement to-date.

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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