Out of Focus : Consumer Focus Scotland’s “qualified support” for self regulation of lawyers halts Holyrood moves to scrap Solicitors Scotland Act 1980

10 Mar

Consumer Focus Scotland logoConsumer Focus Scotland’s support of self regulation closed Holyrood petition, say campaigners. A CLAIM by Consumer Focus Scotland that self regulation of lawyers “brings a number of benefits to consumers” along with a statement by the consumer organisation’s policy of ‘qualified support’ for the Law Society of Scotland’s model of self regulation of the legal profession, is today being blamed by campaigners for the failure earlier this week of a public petition which called for repeal of thirty year old legislation which continues to allow Scottish lawyers to investigate themselves while consumers in England & Wales now have fully independent regulation of legal services via the Legal Ombudsman.

The consumer organisation was also criticised by a solicitor for its apparent lack of understanding of how the Law Society’s Council operates behind closed doors, where Consumer Focus’ expectations that yet another, to-be-announced Law Society run Committee with ‘equal lay membership’ will resolve many of the concerns highlighted in the now closed petition.

Petition PE1388, which called for the repeal of the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 was briefly heard at the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee on Tuesday of this week. However, with all respondents to the committee, the Scottish Government (pdf), Law Society of Scotland (pdf) & Consumer Focus Scotland (pdf) failing to support the petition, it was left to one committee member, Robin Harper MSP to call for it’s closure, citing the highly controversial policy shift by Consumer Focus Scotland as one of the chief reasons the committee should not consider the petition any further.

Consumer Focus Scotland’s support for self regulation ‘played key role’ as Robin Harper MSP calls for closure of Petition PE1388 during Tuesday’s committee hearing (Click image to view video footage)

Members of the Petitions Committee were asked by its convener, Rhona Brankin MSP for their views on the petition, resulting in Robin Harper calling for the petition to be closed. Mr Harper said : “Happy to close it under Rule 15.7 Convener, the Scottish Government has indicated it’s got no plans to repeal the Solicitors’ (Scotland) Act 1980, it responded to the question raised about the resignation of John McGovern, the repeal of the act is not supported by the Law Society of Scotland and Consumer Focus has a qualified support for self regulation on the grounds it does bring certain benefits to consumers.”

As I reported in early February, Consumer Focus Scotland refused to support the petition calling for repeal of legislation which allows solicitors to regulate & investigate themselves. Consumer Focus’ response came after I reported on the Scottish Government’s refusal to repeal the 1980 Act and the Law Society of Scotland’s warning to the Petitions Committee over the petition which I reported on here : Law Society ‘warns’ Scottish Parliament : Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 ‘should not be repealed’ by msps or Scottish Government

Consumer Focus Scotland’s response (pdf) to the Petitions Committee, as briefly referred to Mr Harper during Tuesday’s meeting at Holyrood stated : While it is clear there is the potential for conflict between the representative and regulatory functions of the Society, we believe that self-regulation brings a number of benefits to consumers. These include : (i)The regulatory system will be tailor made for the needs and problems of that particular sector, and will reflect inside knowledge about the realities of that sector, (ii)The benchmarking of best practice over and above the basic minimum requirements & (iii)Self-regulation is quicker and less costly to put in place (and adapt to changing needs) than legislation.”

“However, our support of self-regulation by the legal profession (other than for investigation of complaints) is qualified. The SCC produced a good practice guide on effective self-regulation, which made clear that one of the key principles of a credible self-regulatory scheme is independent representation on its governing body.”

Consumer Focus Scotland’s response to the Petitions Committee also talked about the establishment under the Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010 of a regulatory committee of the Law Society of Scotland with at least a 50% non-solicitor membership and non-solicitor convener, which in the quango’s view would give the Law Society the opportunity to demonstrate clearly that it is acting in the public interest in carrying out its regulatory functions.

Consumer Focus Scotland further stated : “The independence of the regulatory committee will be an important tool in ensuring public confidence in its regulatory functions and we were pleased that provisions were inserted into the 2010 Act to ensure that the Society’s Council must not interfere unduly in the regulatory committee’s business.”

“The provisions of the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 (as amended), which set out the Society’s role in the regulation of solicitors, provide an important consumer protection. It is critical that there is a robust regulatory framework in place to protect consumers should things go wrong. While we have been critical in the past of the Society’s regulatory regime, we believe the changes being introduced by the 2010 Act should lead to increased public confidence, transparency and effectiveness in the regulatory process. This Act is not yet in force, however, and we believe it is important that an opportunity be given to demonstrate whether these changes do lead to such improvements.”

“For this reason we do not support the petition’s suggestion that the Scottish Government should repeal the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 to end self-regulation of the legal profession. Should this restructuring of the Society’s governance arrangements and the application of the regulatory objectives not act to improve public confidence in its regulatory functions, however, we believe the dual regulatory and representative roles of the Society should be reviewed.”

One msp speaking to Diary of Injustice over the failure of Petition PE1388 branded Consumer Focus Scotland’s idea that a Law Society regulatory committee with a 50-50 lay member involvement will restore public confidence in regulation of the legal profession as “nonsense”.

He said : “I think Consumer Focus Scotland seem to have drifted off course from the widely held & clearly justifiable public perception that self regulation is not really an open or honest method of regulating any commercial or public service by any stretch of the imagination. For instance, would Consumer Focus Scotland claim the actions of various bankers were well regulated by their colleagues or the FSA in the light of the banking crisis and massive cuts to public services ?”

He continued : “Consumer Focus as the Scottish Consumer Council supported the introduction of the LPLA Bill which brought the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission in as an independent regulator. However we have recently learned there have been no prosecutions of solicitors under the 2007 LPLA Act and the SLCC which has the same proposed 50-50 lay member complement on its board is itself lacking public confidence. Why on earth would Consumer Focus Scotland believe the same arrangement at the Law Society could resolve the difficulties over regulation or complaints ? This is nonsense.”

There was further support today from a Glasgow solicitor who is keen to see reforms & amendments to the Solicitor’s (Scotland) Act 1980. However, he was severely critical of Consumer Focus Scotland for its apparently lack understanding of how the Law Society Council operates, particularly in the light of recent media attention & high profile resignations from the Law Society’s Council over backdoor dealings & censorship of some its own members views on everything from regulation to saving money from the legal aid budget.

He said : “The Consumer Focus plan that an equal membership solicitor-lay committee at the Law Society will solve the ills of complaints will not work and as far as there being no interference from the Law Society’s Council, well I think recent events are enough to show us the people at Consumer Focus have no idea how the Law Society Council functions or operates, which seems to be mostly behind the membership’s backs. I think its a bit airy fairy to suggest the Council wont intervene with a committee, don’t you ?”

He also called for those solicitors who have publicised their disagreements with the Law Society over issues such as regulation & membership requirements to work with consumer campaigners to return the issue to Holyrood

He continued : “I don’t think Holyrood can turn its back on this issue so easily, given msps have already intervened on the issue of regulation by way of the Legal Profession & Legal Aid Act. Perhaps there may be a greater chance of success if those within the legal profession who are allegedly disgruntled with the Law Society’s poor representation of its members interests and consumers or campaigners who share similar views over the Society’s responsibilities for regulation can come together to take this issue back to the Scottish Parliament after the elections in May.”

Mr William Burns, the petitioner who brought Petition PE1388 to the Scottish Parliament was scathing of the Petitions Committee’s consideration of the issues. He also revealed the Petitions Committee had refused to allow any oral evidence to be presented on the aims of the petition and public experiences with the Law Society’s control of self regulation of solicitors.

He said : “The result of the approximately 30-second hearing, coupled with the repeated refusal to allow us to give oral evidence before the Public Petitions Committee, confirmed of what I accused the nine members prior to the final hearing, that they ignored our abundance of written evidence in its entirety.”

He continued : “Prior to the decision being taken to close PE1388, I accused the committee members of being elected nobodies taking orders from unelected nobodies in the Scottish Government’s legal division; legal collaborators with their comrades in the Law Society. The PPC confirmed this by not denying the accusation, before rushing their decision through on a fast track to close the petition.”

Readers should also note demise of another petition this week which the Law Society unofficially objected to, as Petition 1354 calling for Education of legal & consumer issues in Scottish schools was also closed by the Petitions Committee. Consumer Focus Scotland had rather heavily supported this petition as I reported earlier, HERE, however the Scottish Government and various education bodies said the idea was a non starter and with dwindling media coverage due to some over inflated egos, the petition fell flat on its face.

Petition PE1354 calling for education of legal & consumer issues in Scotland’s schools, closed also, apparently on Law Society orders (Click image to view video coverage)

It should be noted legal insiders have since claimed talks between the Scottish Government and the Law Society of Scotland have taken place on the issues raised in Petition 1354, as the Law Society is rumoured to be seeking to establish itself as the sole educator of legal issues in Scotland.

More worryingly, the petition was also rumoured to have been delayed by the Scottish Parliament, as its own lawyers were involved in an event held jointly with Law Society of Scotland at last year’s Festival of Politics held at Holyrood and chaired by Liz Campbell, the Law Society’s director of Education and Training. Those who participated at the event included the latest Law Society Vice President, Austin Lafferty, of Austin Lafferty Solicitors and Law Society Council Member, Gavin Henderson, from the Office of Scottish Parliamentary Counsel and Patrick Gaffney of the Schools Law Web.

Scottish Government insiders have since revealed the Law Society of Scotland is attempting to ensure that the Schools Law Web, which claims its aims to bring teachers and lawyers together in an effort to introduce young people to the legal system and those who work within it, will be the sole provider of education of legal services to young Scots. Parents and those concerned with education may well want to take a closer look at this arrangement as time goes on.

John Lamont MSP, the Scottish Conservatives Justice spokesman & Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee was asked if the Scottish Conservatives have plans to further raise the issue of teaching consumer & legal issues in Scottish schools, given these subjects are apparently taught in England & Wales.

He said : “Those at school could gain hugely from knowledge of consumers’ rights and the roles and responsibilities of the legal profession and as such the Scottish Conservatives have actively encouraged and continued to support the idea.”

He continued : “As there is no national curriculum in Scotland however, there is no obligation on schools to adopt the idea; but we will be doing all that we can to encourage them to adapt citizenship into their pupils’ studies.”

Consumer Focus Scotland were asked today for their comments on the failure of both petitions at the Scottish Parliament.

On the issue of Petition PE1388 and its closure, a spokesperson for Consumer Focus Scotland said : “As detailed in our submission to the Petitions Committee on Petition 1388, we consider that regulation of the legal profession can be split into two broad categories: the complaints handling functions, and other regulatory matters such as regulating admission to the profession and setting and maintaining professional standards.”

The spokesperson continued : “Our primary concern regarding regulation of the legal profession has been with the issue of complaints against the profession. The Scottish Consumer Council, one of Consumer Focus Scotland’s predecessor bodies, published research in 1999 on complaints about solicitors, which revealed a clear perception that the Society was not impartial in its handling of complaints, appearing to take the side of the solicitor. Following the publication of the research, the SCC campaigned for a number of years for the establishment of an independent body to deal with complaints against solicitors, to ensure that the public has confidence in the legal system. As detailed in our evidence on Petition PE1388, Consumer Focus Scotland’s preference would be for the Legal Services Complaints Commission to have responsibility for investigating all complaints against solicitors, not just service complaints.”

On the matter of Petition 1354 and its closure, a spokesperson for Consumer Focus Scotland gave more hope the issue would be pursued as part of its work on civil justice reform.

The spokesperson said : “Consumer Focus Scotland has a keen interest in the issue of pubic legal education. In our report ‘Making Civil Justice Work for Consumers,’ published in March 2010, we identified a public legal education strategy as being the first step in our four-step approach to removing barriers to access to justice. Most recently, the report of the Civil Justice Advisory Group, published by Consumer Focus Scotland in January 2011, made recommendations around public legal education and our consumer agenda for Scottish Parliament, published in February 2011 also highlights this as a key policy issue.

Their spokesperson continued : “While our work plan for 2011-12 is still to be agreed by the Consumer Focus Scotland Board, we expect that the issue of public legal education will be an issue we pursue as part of our work on civil justice next year.”


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