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‘Choice’ but not as we know it : Legal Services Bill passed, Scots access to justice remains mostly under Law Society’s control

07 Oct

Debating chamberScottish Parliament passed Legal Services Bill, doing no particular favours for consumers. THE Legal Services Bill was finally passed by MSPs at the Scottish Parliament late yesterday afternoon after what can only be described as a round of ‘buy one amendment get one free’ set of deals between the Scottish Government & Law Society of Scotland ensuring consumer choice & competition in Scotland’s legal services marketplace will for the most part, remain out of reach of Scots consumers.

The Law Society are happy as are most of the big law firms in Scotland who supported the bill, happy their fiefdom of the Scottish legal services market has been preserved once again, and ‘meddling outsiders’ kept out of Scotland’s multi billion pound racket legal business. As for the Consumer bodies, well, most of them are just having to put a brave face on things and say they ‘welcome’ the bill which we all know is a mere shadow of England’s soon to come into force Clementi proposals and the Which? supercomplaint which began the whole Legal Services Bill process in Scotland.

Fergus Ewing Scottish ParliamentCommunity Safety Minister Fergus Ewing, said the bill would deliver benefits to lawyers & clients, after being forced by the Law Society to amend access to justice plans. The Scottish Government’s Minister for Community Safety Fergus Ewing commenting on the passage of the bill through the Scottish Parliament said: “The passage of the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill today is good news for our businesses and consumers. At the heart of this Bill is a desire to modernise the profession. It presents greater opportunities, in a regulated framework, for firms of all sizes to be more competitive and to devise a business model which suits them and their clients.”

He ended by saying : “The Bill will deliver clear benefits for the legal profession and consumers.”

The Law Society’s media release reflected the profession’s welcome relief their cash registers will still be ringing up huge charges & fees to clients for some of the western world’s worst quality legal services. The Law Society were quick to gloat their amendments, forced on the weak SNP minority controlled Scottish Executive “meant the ‘Tesco law’ option, which would have allowed 100% of non-solicitor ownership of a law firm, was ruled out for Scotland.”

The Law Society release went onto triumphantly announce : “The legislation will for the first time allow non-solicitors to set up in partnership with solicitors to provide legal services in Scotland. The Bill, as passed, will mean solicitors and other regulated professionals must still have a majority share of at least 51% in any new legal services business, with the remaining 49% open to other external investors.”

jamie_millarJamie Millar, president of the Law Society whose own law firm Lindsays is linked to a dishonest firm of Borders solicitors, said: “I am pleased that MSPs have voted to approve this legislation. These changes will broaden access to legal services and allow the Scottish legal profession to remain competitive against a challenging economic backdrop and in an increasingly international, competitive market. At the same time, the Bill continues to protect the principles and core values that underpin the Scottish legal profession.”

He continued : “There has been much debate, both within and outwith the legal profession, on this Bill and its provisions to allow solicitors to enter into practice with non-solicitors. However, it is now important to move forward and ensure these changes work in practice within the strongest possible regulatory framework. The Society intends to work with government to enhance the provision of legal services and access to justice for people in Scotland.”

One client who has been involved in a bitter 5 year battle with the Law Society and has faced problems in securing legal representation after several law firms dumped him over a case involving a complaint regarding his original solicitor’s embezzlement of over £60,000 from the sale of land scoffed at Mr Millar’s statement.

He said “What principles and core values of the legal profession is Mr Millar talking about ? I know of one solicitor who is a cocaine user, another who is a convicted paedophile, another who was charged with raping & assaulting his own wife, and another who has defrauded over 15 clients of several million pounds yet each of these crooks are still practising law in Scotland.”

He continued : “Mr Millar and his colleagues are talking a lot of rubbish when they talk about values of the legal profession and access to justice. There are no values and there is no access to justice. People should wake up to realise their solicitors and those in charge of regulating them are not be as clean as they claim to be.”

Consumer Focus Scotland logoConsumer Focus Scotland’s Director, Marieke Dwarshuis commented in a statement on the Legal Services Bill vote, saying : “We are delighted that Parliament has voted in favour of widening choice and protection for users of legal services and increasing access to justice. We have long argued that these changes are in the interest of consumers and are pleased that today’s vote will pave the way for the development of a legal services market which better meets the needs of the public.”

Ms Dwarshuis continued : “We recognise that there are many who remain sceptical about the benefits the Bill will bring about, but are confident that in time, most will come to accept that the legislation will be effective for both users of legal services and the legal profession.”

Which logoWhich? also ‘welcomed’ the Legal Services Bill. A spokesperson for Which?, whose supercomplaint began the Legal Services Bill’s peculiarly Scottish journey, in comparison to the much easier and stronger pro-consumer friendly Legal Services Act (2007) for England & Wales, said : “We are delighted to welcome the Bill which will improve legal services for the public in Scotland.”

Doubtless however, some at Which? must be feeling a touch put out over the way the Law Society of Scotland so easily butchered their proposals for free market competition in legal services, as what was passed yesterday in the Scottish Parliament clearly puts Scots consumers on a less choice, less protected, lower standard of service footing than consumers in England & Wales.

The Office of Fair Trading, who issued a report calling for changes to Scotland’s closed shop legal services market has issued no press release or comment.

I could easily write something along the lines of … I find it hard to believe the Law Society were able to amend the bill, bully the Scottish Government to introduce amendments, call in msps for ‘personal briefings’, suggesting they follow the profession’s line to “avoid trouble further down the line”, ensure consumers or anyone with an actual experience of how legal services are provided were not allowed to testify in public to the Justice Committee … but there wouldn’t be much point, as what some might find hard to believe, happened, and I covered it as the Legal Services Bill progressed through Holyrood, here : Legal Services Bill – How Scotland’s legal profession avoided giving consumers wider access to justice

In my opinion, the whole debate on the Legal Services Bill can be summed up in one short television appearance between Mike Dailly & former Law Society President Ian Smart. It really was nothing more than a battle for market share and power between factions of the legal profession … nothing really to do with consumers at all. You can watch the video of Ian Smart & Mike Dailly slogging it out on live television here : Law Society President Ian Smart v Govan Centre’s Mike Dailly on Legal Services Bill reforms. There would have also been a good video clip of Fergus Ewing caving into solicitors during a Law Society meeting, however the Law Society pulled the clip from their own website for reasons unknown – or perhaps so the public couldn’t see how easy it is for the legal profession to influence an elected politician.

Video coverage of key points of testimony on the Legal Services Bill to the Justice Committee by the legal profession and consumer groups, can be viewed in my earlier reports or at InjusticeTV & LawyerTV

I’d be happy if someone could prove me wrong – quote me an example if you can .. however the odds are stacked against consumer rights taking precedence over the legal profession in Scotland and every single piece of legislation, order or amendment passed by the Scottish Parliament concerning legal services or regulation of our country’s legal system since the Scottish Parliament came into existence in 1997 leaves the consumer interest far behind that of the legal profession – even the Legal profession & Legal aid Scotland Act 2007, passed in a similar blaze of glory, gory & Law Society sponsored resistance at Holyrood, which as we all now know has ended up a brutalised, watered down, now almost useless piece of legislation in terms of consumer protection from Scotland’s historically poor quality legal services market.

If anything can be learned from the way the Scottish Parliament handled the Legal Services Bill I’d say its this – collectively, msps in the Scottish Parliament cannot be trusted to pass a piece of legislation involving the legal system which puts the rights of ordinary members of the public over & above the interests of the legal profession. Its as simple as that. There is no other conclusion someone outside the Scots legal system’s bubble can reach on the available evidence.

It is with some irony that on the same day England & Wales placed the consumers interests first, moving to fully independent regulation of their legal services market, Scotland took a backward step which will see the Law Society of Scotland ultimately appointed by the current SNP controlled Scottish Executive as an “approved regulator” to wipe the floor with consumer complaints against legal services once again.

On this note, consumers in Scotland who actually value what they have left in their lives, what they have worked for, what they own, what assets they have, might wish to consider using legal services in England if at all possible because at least consumers might have better protection from independent regulation in the form of the new Legal Ombudsman for England & Wales, which at least so far, appears to be a world of difference from any Scottish solution born from the Law Society of Scotland’s grip over Scots legal reform …

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