Cats & Doughnuts : Lawyers challenge to legal aid cuts struck down by Holyrood Committee while Law Society claims ‘public interest is at it’s heart’

19 Mar

Justice Committee Scottish Parliament 150311Representatives of the Glasgow Bar Association ‘hotly’ contest Law Society backed cuts to legal aid fees & access to justice. TESTIMONY from members of the Glasgow Bar Association & officials from the Law Society of Scotland at this week’s Tuesday session of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee over the Criminal Legal Aid (Fixed Payments) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2011, which propose a 25% cut in legal aid fees to Glasgow solicitors, raised some interesting viewpoints as to the credibility of the Law Society as a representative & regulatory body for both solicitors & the public.

The debate, which featured solicitors David O’Hagan & Gerry Sweeney appearing for the Glasgow Bar Association, and ‘access-all-areas’ Michael Clancy & Andrew Alexander appearing for the Law Society of Scotland, took place after a motion was lodged by James Kelly (Scottish Labour) recommending annulment of the of the Scottish Government’s proposal to cut 25% off the fees for attending Glasgow’ Stipendiary Magistrates Courts where solicitors currently earn £515 for each case. The proposed cut will leave that fee at £390.

The motion by Mr Kelly to annul the legal aid cuts affecting the Stipendiary Courts was defeated on a 5-4 vote after the Justice Committee Convener, John Lamont used his casting vote to decide the issue.

In the money : Lawyer v Lawyer at Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee over cuts to legal aid fees. Pity they wouldn’t expose the Master Policy & Law Society anti-consumer policies in the same terms (Click images to watch video footage)

Part 1 :

Part 2 :

The lively, if at times tedious debate between solicitors, the Law Society & msps who appear to blur into a striking similarity with each other, lasts nearly fifty minutes and the verbatim account of the proceedings can be viewed at the Scottish Parliament’s website, here : Criminal Legal Aid (Fixed Payments) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2011 (SSI 2011/162).

Much of the debate is about legal aid fees which lawyers pick up for appearing at Glasgow’s Stipendiary Magistrates Courts along with claims the Law Society has failed to represent the interests of Glasgow solicitors over the legal aid cuts. There is, sadly, little in the proceedings for those who are campaigning for fully independent regulation of the legal profession, or any mention of ideas along the lines of those I have proposed for years, and featured again earlier in the month, HERE.

As the debate closed, it should be noted the final say went to the Law Society of Scotland, where the well known Michael Clancy made some rather unconvincing claims about how the Law Society has ‘the public interest at heart when thinking about access to justice issues’.

According to the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report of the meeting, Michael Clancy said : “The society has a statutory obligation to promote the interest of the solicitors profession and the interests of the public in relation to that profession. Of course we have the public interest at heart when thinking about access to justice issues. The internal management of our committees is another matter… It is unfortunate to suggest that the society does not have access to justice concerns at its heart. We deal with people, too. We deal with people who are solicitors and people who are solicitors’ clients. We accept that they are complex and human individuals, just as much as we are. We are not just statistical policy wonks.”

You must be kidding, Mr Clancy. No one outside the Law Society of Scotland’s sphere of influence believes this.

Of course, we should be under no illusions about the terms of this debate. Its about money, much more so than regulation or the or creation of separate organisations to represent solicitors & clients best interests.

The now well publicised bickering within the legal profession on the subject of legal aid cuts, which has led to several resignations from the Law Society’s Council reported by Scottish Law Reporter HERE, HERE and HERE along with several features in The Herald newspaper such as HERE, HERE HERE and HERE, seems to have spilled out into public after a Law Society Committee proposed, among other things, the merging of the Scottish Legal Aid Board and the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, which was reported HERE and, with the suggestion that “putting solicitors in charge of their own legal aid payments as “like putting Homer Simpson in charge of a doughnut factory”, HERE

One of the protagonists in the debate, the well known Mike Dailly of the Govan Law Centre wrote on his blog in the independent Scottish legal publication “The Firm” earlier this week in a posting entitled “8 out of 10 cats” : “Dual regulatory and representative functions are incompatible. All of the discord and disharmony we have in Scotland’s legal profession; and the concern or distrust that many members of the public have for lawyers; flows from this inherent conflict. Which is why we need an independent statutory regulator of legal services in Scotland – not for solicitors (and the oft-quoted poll of how 8 out of 10 of solicitors prefer the Law Society) but because the public interest demands it. Likewise, Scottish solicitors like any other worker should be able to choose their own trade union. It’s that simple. If you fix this blockage, everything else will work.”

He continued : “Let’s face the truth. The people of Scotland deserve an independent statutory regulator of legal services; and Scotland’s solicitors should be entitled to choose who represents them.”

Yes this is very true. However, if this is really to happen, as consumers, campaigners and even some solicitors now recognise, all of us will have to come together to debate & argue for this cause at the Scottish Parliament and in public with the same veracity as the Glasgow Bar Association are arguing their corner over the legal aid fee cuts.

A few solicitors & advocates trading doughnuts, a few insults, and throwing street-wise moggies at each other over the issue will not get the job done.

However, if the public were to be more widely engaged on the debate, and particularly those with experience of dealings with the Law Society on a wide range of issues (including regulation) allowed to speak, the Scottish Parliament & Scottish Government may finally have to listen and be made to understand the present system of the Law Society of Scotland ruling over all it sees, does not work.

If anyone is up for campaigning for necessary & real changes to the legislation which governs those who represent the public and the legal profession, you know where to reach those who share the same views .. if not, well it just wont happen any time soon. Capisce ?


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