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Lawyers told to pay £338 for continuing ‘old pals act regulation’ as Scottish Legal Complaints Commission calls for 60% complaints levy rise

18 Feb

Jane Irvine SLCC ChairRegulating lawyers on the cheap : Jane Irvine’s SLCC sets the ‘Staying out of jail’ fee for Scottish lawyers at £338 a year. IF CRIMINALS could pay the Police £338 a year to rig an investigation, avoid criminal charges or a prosecution before the courts, there would be many takers (actually, come to think of it, there are). In what may therefore be a perfect comparison to a bribe to keep out of the arms of the law, the stage is set for another perfect ‘keep out of jail’ exercise in the legal world, where the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) has this week, announced its 2012-2013 budget of nearly THREE MILLION POUNDS, where solicitors with three or more years of experience will be required to pay a complaints levy of £338, thus ensuring the legal profession can continue to cover up the actions of Scotland’s swelling ranks of corrupt lawyers.

There is little doubt that a meagre £338 a year to ensure lawyers continue to regulate lawyers is certainly a bargain, if one considers the amounts of money being taken from clients on an annual basis, and the vast sums of taxpayers money being lost to solicitors fraudulently claiming legal aid, resulting in figures which are well into the tens of millions of pounds. Yet the Law Society of Scotland does not appear to feel the £338 is much of a bargain, even though their member solicitors appear to be recouping the complaints levy many times over from huge hikes in client fees, and other creative ways lawyers have used to swell their wallets.

Last year, the SLCC’s stay-out-of-jail levy for Scottish solicitors was an artificially low £209 after the Law Society of Scotland lobbied then Scottish Government’s Communities Minister Fergus Ewing to intervene on the legal profession’s behalf to force the SLCC to hand back ONE MILLION POUNDS to lawyers, reported by Diary of Injustice at the time, here : Emails reveal Law Society Chief Executive ‘called the shots’ over Fergus Ewing’s Ministerial threat to Scottish Legal Complaints Commission & HERE

This year, we are going to be treated to much the same spectacle, after the Law Society criticised the SLCC’s latest budget plan, and urged savings. You can be certain a letter from the Law Society to Roseanna Cunningham, who replaced Fergus Ewing, will certainly be in the post, or already on her desk demanding Ministerial coercion or simply just another up front intervention to lower the cost of the complaints levy to lawyers.

The proposed levy for the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission for the financial year 2012-2013 is: Solicitors with three plus years experience, £338 (£209 for 2011-12); Conveyancing & executry practitioners admitted three plus years £338 (£209); Solicitors in first three years of practice £169 (£105); Conveyancing & executry practitioners in first three years of practice £169 (£105); Practising outwith Scotland £113 (£69); In-house conveyancing & executry practitioners £113 (£69); In-house solicitors £113 (£69)

Lorna JackLaw Society’s Chief Executive Lorna Jack. Lorna Jack, the current Chief Executive of the Law Society of Scotland who replaced the much more fun Douglas Mill, was quick to plead poverty on behalf of her fellow solicitors in a Press Release issued by the Law Society, commenting : “Many of our members are facing difficult times economically.  Whilst we accept that the commission does not have the kind of reserves to offset the levy as it did last year, we believe that all efforts should be made to find further savings within the proposed budget thereby lessening the impact of the proposed levy increase.”

The pleas of poverty on the part of lawyers do not appear to match the reality of large scale legal aid frauds running into millions of pounds a year, hikes in client fees where even the simplest cases taken on by Scottish solicitors are now costing several thousands of pounds a year to resolve and being stretched out for years to ensure further income.

Ms Jack continued : “The Commission has indicated that its expenditure will be down by half of one percent on last year. However, we are urging them to find further savings – without compromising the core and important role they perform – so that the annual levy solicitors pay to fund the organisation can be as low as possible in the coming year.

“Many of our members are facing difficult times economically.  Whilst we accept that the commission does not have the kind of reserves to offset the levy as it did last year, we believe that all efforts should be made to find further savings within the proposed budget thereby lessening the impact of the proposed levy increase.”

The Press Release also reminded us that “…last year, the Society successfully lobbied the SLCC to use £1 million of its reserves, which meant that the levy was lower than in previous years.”

One of the most significant changes in the budget this year is the proposal to abolish the fee for resolving a complaint on the recommendation of a complaints investigator. Instead, the SLCC has the discretion to charge a case fee of up to £5,000 if a complaint is upheld at the determination stage.

The Law Society is required to collect the levy payments from solicitors on behalf of the SLCC. The levy funds the SLCC’s annual budget, which this financial year (July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013) is forecast to be £2,813,381, largely funded by the levy. The Law Society has called on its members to respond directly to the SLCC during the budget consultation (or participate in a fabricated consultation organised by the Law Society)

The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission issued a Press Release  on the budget, lacking any statement from its Chief Executive. The SLCC is funded by a levy paid by legal professionals operating in Scotland. Under the terms of the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, we are required to consult with the professional bodies about our proposed budget for the next financial year. Following the consultation, the budget will be agreed and then laid before the Scottish Parliament. The SLCC’s financial year runs from 1 July to 30 June.

The proposal is to: (i) set the complaints levy at mediation and investigation stages at zero for all complaints resolved. (ii) set the complaint levy at zero for complaints not upheld at determination (iii) set a single capped figure of £5,000 for complaints upheld in full or part at determination.  The SLCC’s policy will be to apply discretion to charge up to that figure taking into account the circumstances of the case and providing reasons for the levy charged.

The full SLCC Proposed Budget (PDF, 95k) reports the most significant areas of spend continues to be on staff and members, both of which have increased in the current budget.  The budget for 2011/12 was based on a head count of 38.  The budget for 2012/13 is based on a headcount of 40.6 (The 0.6 being Jane Irvine’s dog, probably the only trustworthy yet unofficial member of staff at the Stamp Office who wont tell a client to drop dead just because they filed a complaint about their lawyer).

The SLCC claims the new staffing headcount reflects the changes since the SLCC reviewed its staffing levels as part of the restructuring during 2010/11 and the increase in the volume of work related to complaints and oversight. No mention was made of staff leaving the SLCC either on health grounds, grievances or other issues such as departing to higher up the chain appointments.

The most significant variances between years not related to staffing are: (i) Direct case costs : The increase is based on actual expenditure in the previous year on case-related legal costs.  The majority of this is in relation to appeals. ii)  Corporate legal costs : The increase is based on actual expenditure on advice in relation to interpretation of the 2007 Act, Freedom of Information requests/ reviews, employment and governance.  The majority being in relation to interpretation of legislation. The SLCC said this is likely to continue into the 2012/13 financial year.

Last year the SLCC blew hundreds of thousands of pounds on legal fees, associated with legal advice on just about every FOI request the SLCC received, along with advice & representation on a string of solicitors court challenges to its authority.

The SLCC’s somewhat fanciful, highboy fictional Operational Plan (PDF, 159k) claims they will focus resources and activities on developing and refining the policies and process that support their core business in relation to ;

(i) Acting as the gateway for legal complaints in Scotland, (ii) Resolving complaints about inadequate professional service provided by legal practitioners, (iii) Oversight of the professional bodies investigation of complaints about the conduct of legal practitioners, (iv) Advice and information giving to complainers, the legal profession, consumers and other stakeholders, (v) Implementing the provisions of the Legal Services Act 2010

The SLCC’s plan also claims that “underpinning these activities is our aim to contribute to improvements and excellence in the  provision of legal services in Scotland. Operationally we will continue to operate an efficient organisation that makes effective use of resources.”

If Jane Irvine’s pet dog doesn’t believe the SLCC’s operational plan without a biscuit inducement, neither therefore should consumers who are forced to complain about their solicitors to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission. We are after all talking about an organisation which has so far, told most consumers to ‘get lost’ about their complaints, upheld only a handful of cases against members of the legal profession, and appears not to have prosecuted any crooked lawyer or taken part in a striking off case after all the millions spent on the quango since 2008.

Rosemary AgnewSLCC Chief Executive Rosemary Agnew, soon to be Scotland’s new Freedom of Information Commissioner. Rosemary Agnew, the SLCC’s soon to exit Chief Executive who was recently appointed to replace Kevin Dunion as Scotland’s Information Commissioner, apparently at the insistence of a closed group of senior msps has written to the regulators who must ensure the complaints levy is paid. Ms Agnew’s letters can be found here : SLCC letters to the professional bodies (PDF, 6Mb). Ms Agnew in her role as Chief Executive has chosen not to issue any comment on the budget unlike last year where the Chief Executive issued a long statement.

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