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COVER UP : Reduce accountability, FOI compliance for complaints bodies says Scottish Legal Complaints Commission Chair Jane Irvine in presentation to conference delegates

15 Jun

Jane IrvineNo records were kept of SLCC Chair Jane Irvine’s presentation to delegates which targeted Freedom of Information requests, media & complaints evidence. JANE IRVINE, the Chair of the Scottish Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) has told a conference composed of delegates there should be a reduction in Freedom of Information requirements for complaints handling bodies such as the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission and also there should be a ‘drive to resolution & standards improvement rather than gathering statistics & evidence from complaints made by members of the public against Scottish solicitors & law firms.

Ms Irvine’s presentation on some of the ‘hot topics’ which have marred the SLCC’s three years of complaints handling (or lack of it) came to light in a recently published online document where the SLCC Chair gave a presentation prepared by the White Paper Conference Company on complaints handling to an undisclosed audience on 18 June 2010. The full presentation can be viewed or downloaded here : Jane Irvine Presentation on SLCC June 2010

Among a series of discussion points, Ms Irvine said to the gathered audience “finality” should be promoted in complaints handling as the SLCC could not expect everyone to be happy with outcomes and there should be “Faster, firm but fair endings to complaint services”. Ms Irvine went onto say there should be a “drive to resolution & standards improvement – not gathering stats & evidence”, which may leave some in the consumer world wondering if the SLCC is more interested in wiping the slate clean each time it resolves a complaint, rather than maintaining a database of statistics & evidence which could be made available to protect consumers who have yet to fall into a solicitor-client relationship gone sour.

Margaret Scanlan - Called to the Bars - Sunday Mail  15 March 2009 emailJane Irvine anxious to avoid further FOI scandals at the SLCC including boozed up & prejudiced board members. During the presentation, the thorny topic of Freedom of Information came up, and unsurprisingly, given the many scandals at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission which have been revealed through very resistant Freedom of Information disclosures, some ordered by the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, Ms Irvine came down hard on FOI legislation and put forward proposals to lower the the requirements of Freedom of Information for complaints handling bodies such as the SLCC, to keep out the prying eyes of the media into the world of ‘crooked lawyers’ and poor complaints regulation.

In an example of information ordered by Scotland’s Information Commissioner, it was revealed the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission’s board members regularly operated on an anti-client bases, feeling so free to do so they even included insults in their email banter between colleagues : FOI Chief Dunion orders Scottish Legal Complaints Commission to release board member’s anti-client jibes, Master Policy study details

In another instance, FOI revealed some of the SLCC’s board members had admitted to being too drunk to know what was going on : MacAskill must clean up law complaints body as members ‘booze culture conduct’ reflects lack of discipline & will to investigate crooked lawyers although while being out on the razzle, they still managed a few more insults towards clients ruined by their solicitors.

0011Margaret Scanlan was ‘on the razzle again’ while clients of ‘crooked lawyers’ burned. Email correspondence obtained under Freedom of Information laws revealed SLCC board member Margaret Scanlan, a solicitor with Russells Gibson McCaffrey in Glasgow, confessed to the Commission she was suffering from the effects of a hangover after being “’out on the razzle again last night”. Stunningly Scanlan in her emails then went on to tear apart consumers hopes the SLCC would fulfil its intended monitoring role of the ‘crooked lawyer compensation schemes, operated by the Law Society of Scotland, known as the Guarantee Fund & Master Insurance Policy which are designed to (but do not) protect consumers funds from crooked lawyers who steal money or mishandling client’s legal affairs. Margaret Scanlan : “Was out on the razzle, again, last night so bit cross-eyed this morning. Please excuse any consequent gibberish. Here are my comments on Master Policy and Guarantee Fund…. The consultation should be viewed with some caution. It provides very little by way of a sound evidential basis for us to do anything…. One unidentified responded … reports complaints about difficulty in finding solicitors to pursue a claim under MP (Master Policy). Apart from fundamental misunderstandings about MP which is for benefit of practitioner and in respect of which consumer has no rights ..”

0012Margaret Scanlan condemned Guarantee Fund claimants as “chancers”. However, further emails from Margaret Scanlan have now emerged which depict the same Law Society style ‘anti-consumer-anti-claims culture’ operating at the supposedly independent Legal Complaints Commission, where Scanlan stunningly labels claimants to the Guarantee Fund as “chancers” indicating she may have personal knowledge of cases, despite the fact that claims to the Guarantee Fund are supposedly confidential. Margaret Scanlan : “The only complaints I am aware of on the functioning and extent of the GF have come from corporate bodies eg lending Institutions whose claims have largely not been entertained on basis that is not what GF is for. This includes our friend **** (censored) whose cause is vigorously esposed by **** (censored) but is a complete chancer in my opinion.”

Frequent Flyers SLCCSLCC’s David Smith expressed anti-client jibes in emails around the anti-consumer law complaints quango. Among the papers ordered to be disclosed in a decision published by Scotland’s Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion are emails containing anti-client jibes from one of the SLCC’s board members, David Smith who was personally appointed to the SLCC by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill. Mr Smith, a lawyer who served much of his career at law firm Shepherd & Wedderburn, who themselves often act for the Master Policy in protection of questionable solicitors against negligence claims, referred to participants in the Master Policy survey & deceased clients who had committed suicide as a direct result of involvement with the Master Policy, as “Frequent flyers”, a term (among many unprintable) apparently widely used among SLCC Board members & staff against anyone who submits complaints against solicitors.

A legal insider said today there were rumours the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission were pushing the Scottish Government to take them out of compliance with Freedom of Information legislation, a move apparently supported by the Law Society of Scotland which itself is conveniently exempt from FOI laws.

He said : “I think you will find the situation with regards to the SLCC’s compliance with FOI legislation has moved on in the past year and there have been informal discussions on how to limit & reduce FOI requests as well as discussions to remove its FOI compliance.”

An official with one of Scotland’s consumer organisations, commenting on the idea to reduce or remove the SLCC’s FOI compliance said : “Any attempt to pull the SLCC out of FOI laws would understandably be viewed by most consumers as a cover up of a very unfair complaints process against the legal profession.”

She continued : “Perhaps the SLCC should get on with what the public expected it to be doing instead of shirking from its responsibilities at every turn. We are now in its third year yet there is still no monitoring of the Master Policy or Guarantee Fund and as we have seen from their own statistics, the SLCC have a very small success rate on upholding complaints which must be questioned after all this time & effort was put into creating it in the first place.”

Ms Irvine also put forward a list of exclusions of complaints where issues such as Time limits, Vexatious, Frivolous, Totally without merit, Trivial, Low value, Unlikely to provide public value, all of which were identified as issues to be considered for closing complaints. Several times during the presentation, Ms Irvine promoted bringing back terms into the SLCC’s ‘mission’ such as “may” or “may deal” for the SLCC to cope with consumer complaints and its responsibilities under the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007.

A Scottish Government insider today pointed out it was the use of the word “may” in Section 39 of the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, which has effectively rendered the SLCC’s prized monitoring powers of the Master Policy & Guarantee Fund as “a useless gesture”.

He said : “Here we have a case of the use of a single word effectively writing off a key public expectation of the SLCC. The SLCC has talked about monitoring the Master Policy & Guarantee Fund for the past three years yet each time enquiries have been made to the SLCC about its monitoring role, the SLCC have responded by claiming it is a discretionary power and that they “may” monitor the issues under discussion rather than having any obligation to oversee the highly contentious Master Policy.”

He continued : “Clearly after three years and lengthy discussions at the SLCC on the Master Policy, they dont want to monitor it in any way whatsoever.”

Section 39 of the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007 states :

(1) The Commission may monitor the effectiveness of—

(a) the Scottish Solicitors Guarantee Fund vested in the Society and controlled and managed by the Council under section 43(1) of the 1980 Act (“the Guarantee Fund”);

(b) arrangements carried into effect by the Society under section 44(2) of that Act (“the professional indemnity arrangements”);

(c) any funds or arrangements maintained by any relevant professional organisation which are for purposes analogous to those of the Guarantee Fund or the professional indemnity arrangements as respects its members.

(2) The Commission may make recommendations to the relevant professional organisation concerned about the effectiveness (including improvement) of the Guarantee Fund, the professional indemnity arrangements or any such funds or arrangements as are referred to in subsection (1)(c).

(3) The Commission may request from the relevant professional organisation such information as the Commission considers relevant to its functions under subsections (1) and (2).

(4) Where a relevant professional organisation fails to provide information requested under subsection (3), it must give reasons to the Commission in respect of that failure.

John SwinneyHad John Swinney had his way in 2006, the SLCC would have been monitoring the Law Society’s corrupt Master Policy. Clearly an overuse of the word “may’” has allowed the SLCC to maintain a distance from doing any serious monitoring work of the Law Society of Scotland’s notoriously corrupt Master Policy. However, had the now Cabinet Secretary for Finance John Swinney’s amendments to the LPLA Bill been accepted when he proposed them during his time in opposition at Holyrood in late 2006, the SLCC would have had statutory monitoring powers of a much more robust nature than are now contained in the LPLA (Scotland) Act the vagueness of which the SLCC are effectively using to stay away from the root of the regulation problem.

On a more positive note, the presentation by Ms Irvine also debated  the use of publicity to name & shame where poor complaints handling exists, although in the past three years, the SLCC has not named any solicitor or law firm for poor complaints handling. The media came in for criticism during discussion of “Naming both parties – Confidentiality, WEB blogs & media dramas v transparency”, although to-date, one year on, again the SLCC has chosen not to identify any ‘crooked lawyers’ brought to its attention, despite the organisation taking in around 1000 complaints a year.

A Freedom of Information request was made to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission asking for more information about the presentation and some of its key elements, including Ms Irvine’s ideas to restrict or interfere with Freedom of Information requests from the media or other sources.

The SLCC responded, claiming it held no information on the discussions contained in Ms Irvine’s presentation.

Upon a request for a review of the decision, the SLCC admitted it did not hold a delegate list for the conference which their Chair was speaking to, nor did the SLCC hold any notes or records of the conference expect the presentation provided online by the White Paper Conference Company.

Ms Irvine’s presentation listed improvements to the SLCC, now in its third year of complaints handling, as “Accessibility – complaints are valued & recorded at every level. General recognition of three tier system principle. Gateway systems, case handling sophistication, expertise in resolution & investigation, recognition lessons can be learned – all much improved.” yet the SLCC has still only managed to uphold one single complaint to-date and consumers who have contacted the SLCC in attempts to file complaints against their solicitors all tell a story of an organisation which is “very consumer unfriendly” to the point many have expressed a feeling of hostility towards clients.

Clearly this is the way the Law Society of Scotland want regulation of complaints against the legal profession to be – very consumer unfriendly, anti client, and light touch with no powers, three statements of fact which describe the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission very effectively.

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