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LEGAL COSTS: Ask your solicitor ten questions about costs before your legal expenses run up thousands in unnecessary work & bills – or result in your lawyer taking your home & savings to pay for it

Questions to ask your solicitor – walk if you don’t like the replies. IN SCOTLAND, there are few, if any non lawyer controlled sources of advice to legal services consumers on how to manage client relationships with solicitors, how to control legal costs, and what to do when something goes wrong and your lawyer rips you off.

Client protection – is a myth. Given three decades of evidence that thousands of clients have been ripped off every year by their once trusted solicitors, the only people who believe a complaints system run by lawyers, managed by lawyers and protected by lawyers –  are fantasists, and the Law Society of Scotland.

There are no background record checks available on Scottish solicitors, and the only ‘help’ on offer to clients when their relationship with their solicitor breaks down – is provided by the pro-lawyer Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC), a regulator backed by the Law Society of Scotland, staffed by members of the Law Society of Scotland. You get the picture.

However, in England & Wales, the landscape is a little more consumer friendly, with the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) and Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) providing a more independent form of advice and help to consumers.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority also publish complaints and regulatory data on solicitors and law firms – a must have service for anyone considering using a solicitor which does not currently exist in Scotland.

As things currently stand in Scotland – if you are unable to check up on your solicitor’s regulatory history via an independent source, the best advice is to walk away – or what happens next is your own fault.

Self regulation by lawyers, pleas to the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament for help will not put right your legal problems or what your solicitor did to you.

A handy guide published by the Legal Ombudsman, reprinted by DOI in this article, gives a list of ten questions consumers and clients of solicitors should ask their legal representatives before taking on representation and expensive legal services.

There are further tips in the full LeO leaflet, so please download it and read thoroughly before engaging legal representation.

This guide was written for the English legal services market, and you may be an English reader, so go right ahead and ask you solicitor these ten basic questions on costs.

However, the same questions apply as much in Scotland as anywhere else –  and anyone using a Scottish solicitor should consider asking these same questions.

If you don’t like the answers you receive, or don’t get any answers at all – then the best consumer advice possible is to protect yourself and walk away.

At the very least, you will have saved yourself hundreds, or thousands or tens of thousands of pounds for something involving a lawyer which may well have ended up going wrong anyway.

Why put yourselves through a five year heartache losing your savings to a lawyer, when ten little questions and answers may save you a whole lot of trouble.

The introduction to the leaflet from the Legal Ombudsman states: “If you use a lawyer, he or she should talk to you about the cost of their services. But you should also understand their charges. We have come up with ten questions to ask your lawyer about the cost of your service. We’ve also included some top tips and explained the terms used to help you get the most from conversations with lawyers about costs.

As a consumer, you have the right to expect your lawyer to be clear about how much they are likely to charge you, and for the final bill to be clearly explained and in the range you expected.

Legal services can be complex and the final cost can depend on things such as the type of service, individual details of the case, and how events develop. The expertise and experience of the lawyer may affect things too. However, most services are straightforward and your lawyer should give you a clear idea of what you will be charged from the start. Even if things do get complicated, your lawyer should warn you when this happens, so there shouldn’t be any surprises in your final bill.

A lawyer who values good service will happily answer your cost-related questions. Lawyers also have a duty to provide you with a client care letter when you appoint them. This letter should clearly explain the costs for the service and any terms and conditions that may affect the final price.”

Question 1  Will I be charged for a consultation?

Finding the lawyer who is right for you and the service you need is important. A consultation by phone, face-to-face, letter or online can help you make your decision. A lawyer can charge you for a consultation but they should tell you before you book and explain any conditions. For example, they may offer the first 30 minutes free but charge for time above that.

A lawyer should speak to you about costs and provide the best possible information so you can make an informed choice.

If you have a consultation, make the most of the opportunity. Do your research to find the right lawyer – you can check online, talk to friends and family, or speak to consumer organisations to help you make your choice.

Question 2  “How do you cost your service?”

This question can help you shop around to get best value for money. Two lawyers may provide very different estimates for the same service. Understanding why the quotes differ can help you make the right decision. For example, one lawyer may be more experienced or an expert in the area of law your case involves. If you have a complex case, you might think it’s better to pay more as it may improve the outcome and cost you less in the long run. With a fairly simple case you might decide you don’t need that level of expertise, so it may be better value to go with the cheaper estimate.

Experience and skill are just two reasons why costs may differ. There are now more ways than ever to provide a legal service which can have an impact on what you pay. For example, you can now buy services that are phone or web based rather than face-to-face. Providers who offer this type of service may save on rent and backroom costs and might therefore offer a cheaper price to customers. Understanding if this type of service works for you will help you decide if it is, or isn’t, value for money.

Estimates may vary for a whole host of reasons. Ask questions until you understand enough about the services on offer so you can pick one that suits you.

Question 3 “Can you tell me more about the way you charge?”

Lawyers have different ways of charging and their charging method may also vary according to the service. For example, they may offer a fixed fee for writing a will, but an hourly rate for a probate service (the administration of a will when someone has died). Find out what charging method the lawyer will use and ask them to explain it to you in detail. Questions 4 and 5 help with understanding fixed fee and hourly rate charges.

Conditional fee arrangements (CFAs) are also known as ‘no win, no fee’ arrangements. If you lose, you won’t, in general, have to pay your lawyer’s fees, but may need to pay some out of pocket expenses such as barrister’s fees or court fees. You may also be liable to pay some of the other side’s costs but it is possible to get insurance to protect against this. If you win, you will have to pay your lawyer’s fees and in addition there is usually a success fee which is intended to cover the risk that the firm are entering into with this type of agreement. You should in most cases, however, be able to recover your fees (including any success fee) from the other side. If you are thinking about entering into one of these arrangements, make sure you ask detailed questions so that you fully understand the terms and conditions.

Contingency fee agreements are also a type of ‘no win no fee’ agreement. If your lawyer agrees to represent you under a contingency fee agreement — which should not be confused with a conditional fee arrangement – they will be able to claim a percentage of any money they win on your behalf plus expenses. If you lose the case, you won’t be charged a fee, but you might still have to pay other costs (which could include the other side’s legal costs too).

The contingency fee percentage must be agreed in advance. You should also check whether the lawyer will deduct any expenses before they take their contingency fee or after as this can make a significant difference to the amount you finally receive. If the percentage you are asked to pay is very high, you could end up with very little – even if you win.

Question 4 “What is a fixed fee and what does it cover?  Will I be charged for any other costs?

The term ‘fixed fee’ can be used in different ways. It can be easy to assume that it covers all costs for the service you need. In some cases that may be true, but it may also just refer to the lawyer’s fees. For example, a ‘fixed fee’ in a property case may, or may not, include charges related to searches. Sometimes a lawyer may offer a ‘fixed fee’ for a stage of the case, so don’t feel embarrassed about asking your lawyer exactly what they mean by ‘fixed fee’. It’s not a silly question; the term isn’t self-explanatory.

Lawyers will sometimes give you an estimate of the costs. This isn’t the same as a ‘fixed fee’, so check what your lawyer means. This can be important as sometimes a lawyer may charge a fixed fee for a particular stage but give an estimate for the next stage. If that happens, or you aren’t sure, check what your lawyer means and ask for an estimate for the total cost of the case.

Question 5  “You charge an hourly rate but I’d like an estimate for the cost of the whole service. What will my final bill look like?”

If your lawyer charges an hourly rate, they must give you an estimate of how much the overall service will be. This should compare reasonably with your final bill. If you aren’t sure, then ask your lawyer to give you an estimate for the whole service. Sometimes it can be hard to predict how much it will all cost. Ask so you know how certain the estimate is. Having a range of costs might be more helpful than a single number, which could shift up or down. The important thing is to understand how much the total bill could be.

You are entitled to ask the lawyer to set a limit on the costs. This means your lawyer has to check that you are happy to continue if the spend approaches the agreed threshold. Setting a limit can help you make sure you don’t spend more than you can afford.

Ask questions to understand exactly when the clock starts. For example, if you call your lawyer for an update on your case will you be charged for the call? Ask if, and how, your lawyer rounds up their charges. Many lawyers charge in six minute blocks – check if that’s how your lawyer works. Make sure you feel comfortable with the way they charge.

As with ‘fixed fees’, ask if there are any other costs that won’t be covered in the hourly rate.

Question 6 “Could my costs change? How will you let me know if they do?”

There may be circumstances where costs do change. This is most likely if new information or developments make a case more difficult. For example, in a divorce case much is dependent on the other person’s cooperation to resolve it quickly. Even if both people intend to behave amicably, sometimes that resolve breaks down. If your costs look like they are changing, ask your lawyer about it. In general, your lawyer should tell you as soon as they are aware of any changes, but you don’t have to wait to ask for an explanation. Another option is to ask, when you choose your lawyer, if their original estimate is likely to be breached. If you have agreed a spending limit (see question 5), then your lawyer should stop work until you confirm that you want to continue.

If a case gets complicated even a ‘fixed fee’ arrangement can change. Your lawyer should explain when this might happen and also set out the terms and conditions in your client care letter. Make sure you understand and ask if there is a ‘get out’ clause to say if additional costs can be charged.

Remember, you always have options, even in the middle of a legal transaction. If there is a big hike in the costs of using a lawyer, then your lawyer should tell you about them and let you know what your options are. You could use a different specialist who might cost less but take longer, or only use email to contact your lawyer. There might also be some stages in the process that can be missed out. Ask your lawyer how you can work with them to reduce costs.

Question 7 Are there any extra costs?

This really is a catch-all question to help you budget for your service. You are basically asking your lawyer if they have given you all the information they reasonably can to make sure there aren’t any nasty surprises in the future. Examples of the sort of information this question might raise are additional costs for things like expert reports (such as from a doctor), or photocopying. Some firms use premium rate phone numbers, which could add unexpected costs to the final amount you spend for your service. Use these examples as a prompt to discuss this issue. Your lawyer should also tell you if you are likely to incur any bank charges. For example, you might need to make a CHAPs payment (same day electronic transfer) which can cost over £20 in a property transaction.

Finally, don’t forget to check if your estimate is inclusive of VAT. Your lawyer should tell you, but check so that you don’t get a higher bill than you’re expecting.

Question 8 “Can I get help with the cost of my legal service?”

A lawyer should always talk to you about how the service will be paid for and discuss options such as insurance or membership of a union that might help cover the costs. There can be some fine-print with different insurance options that you need to understand, so ask lots of questions to make sure you know what you are signing up to. Some insurances, like ‘after the event’ or ‘before the event’ insurance, could cover you for some things but not for others. Ask your lawyer for more information.

If you receive benefits or are on a low income you might qualify for help that may reduce or cover all of your costs. There are different programmes for different types of help but the best known is legal aid, which provides free legal advice from lawyers who are registered with the service. Even if your lawyer isn’t registered to provide legal aid they should tell you about it so you have the option of going to a lawyer who can.

Question 9 “When will I be billed and how long will I have to pay? Do you offer payment options?”

A lawyer should give you clear information on their billing process and offer reasonable time for you to make payments. They should also let you know if there are penalty charges if you don’t pay on time. You may be asked to pay some money at the start either to cover certain expenses or as an advance payment of fees. Lawyers aren’t obliged to offer you payment options, but some may be willing to negotiate. Asking the question might help you find a lawyer whose service fits your personal circumstances.

Question 10 “What happens if I disagree with the amount I’ve been charged?”

Your lawyer should tell you their approach to resolving billing disagreements. Every lawyer should have a complaints handling system in place, so find out how their system works. You should not be charged by a lawyer for looking at your complaint – it is very poor service if they do. When you appoint a lawyer they are also obliged to let you know about the Legal Ombudsman who can help you to resolve your complaint if you and your lawyer can’t reach an agreement.

Note – if you disagree with legal bills in Scotland, cases have revealed solicitors often employ threats and legal action for demands to be met within seven days. In some cases solicitors have applied to sequestrate their clients for disagreements on legal bills, and willing, compliant local sheriff courts staffed by familiar clerks and members of the judiciary often grant such orders with little regard for the facts or any representations from clients who question the integrity of legal fees.

SCOTLAND – Consumer protection against rogue solicitors and law firms does not exist.

How bad is the Law Society of Scotland when it comes to protecting consumers? The answer is  very bad. The Law Society of Scotland is a lobby group for the legal profession which puts lawyers interests first, before clients, the public, or anyone else. Do not expect client protection from a system where lawyers regulate themselves.

Read previous articles on the Law Society of Scotland here: Law Society of Scotland – A history of control of the legal profession, and no client protection.

Previous reports on the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal – The pro-lawyer tribunal which determines ‘punishments’ for solicitors after complaints have endured an eternity at the Law Society & SLCC, can be found here: Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal – Pro-lawyer protection against client complaints

Previous media investigations, reports and coverage of issues relating to the pro-lawyer Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) can be found here: Scottish Legal Complaints Commission – A history of pro-lawyer regulation.

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NAME & SHAME: Scots consumers denied records checks on lawyers – as Solicitors Regulation Authority propose detailed public register of lawyers in England & Wales

UK Solicitors regulator plans to publish more data on lawyers. A PROPOSAL to publish more detailed information about law firms and solicitors in a public register has been launched by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) – the body charged with investigating solicitors in England & Wales.

The move to advance consumer protection south of the border by the English legal regulator could help consumers make more informed choices on the use of legal services, and result in a more competitive legal sector with higher standards of service and client care.

However, this is in stark contrast to Scotland, where DOI recently reported on the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) who refuse to publish any useable information to Scots consumers which could help clients steer clear from corrupt lawyers and law firms.

The report, available here: FROM ROGUES TO RICHES: SLCC refuse to identify corrupt solicitors in case findings revealed SLCC determination decisions are heavily redacted and only published after being approved by the Law Society of Scotland, leaving Scots consumers at a considerable disadvantage to consumers in England & Wales.

However, and with the advantage of not being held back in the middle ages by the Law Society of Scotland, the England based Solicitors Regulation Authority has launched a discussion paper, “Regulatory data and consumer choice in legal services” exploring what information the SRA could publish through a public register.

The proposed public register already allows consumers to check up on lawyers via the SRA’s Check your solicitor’s record service reported earlier here:  INSPECT YOUR ROGUE: Check your solicitors’ record in England.

The SRA suggests that consumers could benefit from information such as a solicitor’s qualifications or practice restrictions, and complaints data and insurance claims. The SRA also considers what information law firms might want to publish voluntarily, such as quality marks and service prices.

The proposals echo recent calls by the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA), in its interim report on its market study, as well as from the Legal Services Consumers Panel (LSCP), to improve the level of information available for consumers. The SRA agrees that a lack of clear, targeted information means it is difficult for consumers to compare providers and make informed choices. This is dampening competition in the sector.

Better information could help tackle the problem that the legal needs of individuals and small businesses are not being met.

Only one in ten people use a solicitor when they have a legal problem. And legal problems are estimated to cause small businesses almost £10 billion of losses a year, yet 83 percent of the population see legal services as unaffordable.

Greater transparency would also bring legal services more in line with other sectors, such as financial services and energy, where regulators are already making sure consumer-focused information, such as complaints data, is available.

The SRA recognises that there needs to be careful consideration of the implications of publishing more information. Risks to consider include increased burdens on firms and a one-size-fits-all approach working well for some and not others. For example, the needs of corporate clients will be different to those of an individual consumer.

Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive, said: “Most people and small businesses are still not accessing legal services. When they do, they are not shopping around. It is unsurprising when the information out there is so limited.

“We want to help consumers, so they are not left making blind choices. Information such as enforcement action, complaints and claims data are exactly the type of things I would want to know when choosing a solicitor.

“We know that the public look to the regulators to provide credible, authoritative, objective information.

“If we get this right, we could help create a more competitive market, where consumers can make better choices and forward-thinking firms thrive. It will also help small businesses access the legal services that could help them succeed and grow.

“Yet we need to think carefully about what we publish and how. More information will not benefit consumers if they find it confusing, hard to access, or it is unhelpful. We have also made good progress on getting rid of unnecessary burdens on firms. We will not ask firms to do more in this area, unless there is a clear benefit.

“This is just the start of a discussion, so we are keen to hear what everyone thinks.”

The SRA has already taken steps to improve the information available to consumers by publishing its law firm search in April. And it already publishes details of enforcement action. Publishing useful data in one place would not only help consumers directly, but indirectly as data re-publishers could use it to develop comparison tools that could help make the market more competitive.

The SRA plans to consult on proposals in this area next year. Its discussion paper can be found at: www.sra.org.uk/choice. Closing date for submissions to the consultation is 26 January 2017 submissions.

SRA law firm search can be found here: www.sra.org.uk/consumers/using-solicitor/law-firm-search/about-search.page

The CMA’s interim report looking at ways to improve competition in legal services by increasing information for consumers is available at: www.gov.uk/government/news/cma-seeks-views-on-ways-to-help-legal-services-customers.

The Legal Services Consumer Panel’s research, “Opening up data in legal services (PDF 36 pages, 625K)

SCOTLAND: Legal Services Consumers held back by Law Society of Scotland & self regulation.

Away from the fantastical claims of the Law Society of Scotland, the oh-so-easy free pr and spin of how the Law Society protects access to justice while offering client protection, the fact is, consumers of legal services in Scotland have no chance whatsoever of selecting a legal representative based on their regulatory history – because the Law Society of Scotland refuse to publish any detailed regulation histories of their members.

Just how bad is the Law Society of Scotland when it comes to protecting consumers? The answer is very bad. Read previous articles on the Law Society of Scotland here: Law Society of Scotland – A history of control of the legal profession, and no client protection.

A BBC Scotland investigation “Lawyers Behaving Badly” exposed further weaknesses in the Law Society of Scotland’s system of control freakery self regulation. The BBC programme lifted the lid once more on lawyers investigating their own, how dishonesty plays out at the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal, and legal aid fraud.

A recent DOI investigation into the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission revealed most of the SLCC’s key staff and investigators are in-fact families, friends & business associates of solicitors, reported here: ‘Independent’ Scots legal watchdog consists of solicitors’ husbands, wives, sons, daughters, cousins, friends, & employers.

Previous media investigations, reports and coverage of issues relating to the SLCC can be found here: Scottish Legal Complaints Commission – A history of pro-lawyer regulation.

Previous reports on the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal – The pro-lawyer tribunal which determines ‘punishments’ for solicitors after complaints have endured an eternity at the Law Society & SLCC, can be found here: Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal – Pro-lawyer protection against client complaints

 

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DISHONESTY RULES: Rogue solicitors guilty of fraud, embezzlement and theft from wills receive soft censures from pro-lawyer Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal and courts

Consumers are not protected by lawyers regulating lawyers. SCOTLAND’S legal profession and anyone connected to it – including the judiciary –  often praise the system of self regulation where lawyers look after their own – to the point of taking over and closing any public debate on creating independent regulation of solicitors.

And, of course lawyers will continue to regulate themselves in Scotland – because self regulation is too protected by vested legal interests, because it allows a solicitor to rip off their client, to be judged by his colleagues and to walk away from it, no matter what was done to the client.

Time and again, lawyers look after their own, investigate themselves, appear in front of their friends at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC), and, at most, receive a censure, or slap on the wrist from the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal (SSDT).

Diary of Injustice recently reported on how the SLCC refuses to identify corrupt lawyers within determination decisions which are only published after being approved by the Law Society of Scotland, featured here: FROM ROGUES TO RICHES: SLCC refuse to identify corrupt solicitors in case findings.

The SLCC print lists of doctored histories of complaints against lawyers, and then refuse to identify the solicitors who ripped off their clients – how corrupt is that!

Compare this to England & Wales, where decisions made by the Solicitors Regulation Authority in relation to identified law firms and names of solicitors can easily be found here Recent Decisions – Solicitors Regulation Authority.

Striking’s off rarely occur, only as a last resort for the members of Scotland’s legal profession must protect their own.

The slick SSDT website invites you, the public – to have confidence in the ways lawyers look after their own.

Yet in decision after decision, the extent of dishonesty during proceedings renders much of what is published in Tribunal ‘interlocutors’ as clever forgeries of the acts of wilful, determined and well practiced thieves – far more determined than will ever be told in public.

The noticeable lack of action by the SSDT to report solicitors to the Police & Crown Office for prosecution, does, as the years go by, verify the position that the SSDT seeks to protect solicitors from the full weight of criminal law – which applies to everyone else.

However, on that rare occasion where solicitors do appear in court, you just know they are not going to jail.

In a prime example of the above, earlier this week Scotland was meant to weep like a child after the Law Society sought to publicise the fact Paul O’Donnell – a solicitor from the law firm of Thorley Stephenson, in South Bridge – had sold his house to repay more than £21,000 he pled guilty to embezzling from the Edinburgh law firm Thorley Stephenson, in South Bridge .

O’Donnell, 35, had previously been warned he was facing jail for the embezzlement but the judge – Sheriff Frank Crowe – allowed him to remain free as he had repaid the £21,485 he had obtained dishonestly.

In court –  O’Donnell’s defence lawyer –  Murray Robertson told Sheriff Crowe that his client had sold his house, moved in with relatives, and the money had been repaid to Thorley Stephenson.

Sheriff Crowe was also told O’Donnell had been sequestrated, was declared bankrupt and is no longer practising as a solicitor.

In response, Sheriff Crowe told O’Donnell that cases of this nature usually involved a sentence of imprisonment but, as  O’Donnell had co-operated and admitted his guilt, arranged the sale of his house and returned the money to Thorley Stephenson, Sheriff Crowe avoided sending O’Donnell to jail and instead confined him to his current address from 9pm to 6am for six months.

You may be forgiven for thinking how amazing a lawyer who stole, avoided jail.

However, in the rare occurrences when solicitors do come before our courts, jail is always a last resort for the judge – who are themselves, lawyers.

So, with facts in hand that our courts take a shine to lawyers with tears in their eyes, it should be of little surprise the latest rulings by the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal offer mere censures and fines for executry and will fraud, theft and embezzlement – which are crimes to ordinary people in the real world.

Law Society-v-Euan Maxwell Terras

This case involved a solicitor in his writing and executing a Will in which his family were the Primary Beneficiaries. An amazing story, yet only punishment is a fine.

Read the ‘published’ details of the hearing here Council of the Law Society of Scotland v Euan Maxwell Terras

Edinburgh 29 August 2016.  The Tribunal having considered the Complaint at the instance of the Council of the Law Society of Scotland against Euan Maxwell Terras, Sprang Terras, 64 Kyle Street, Ayr; Find the Respondent guilty of professional misconduct in respect of his acting in the purchase of a property with the ancillary execution of a Minute of Agreement and the drafting of a Will where his son was the residuary beneficiary and found that in doing so (1) he acted in an actual conflict of interest situation in the purchase of the property and the execution of the Minute of Agreement where he had a personal and/or financial interest in both; (2) he did not insist that Miss MM consult other solicitors either in the purchase of the property or the execution of the Minute of Agreement when both were actual conflicts of interests; (3) he could not discharge his professional obligations to solely look after the interests of Miss MM both in the purchase of the property and the execution of the Minute of Agreement given the actual conflict of interest in both between him and Miss MM; (4) he called into question his personal integrity/independence in taking instructions and/or drafting the second Will which benefitted members of his family and in terms of which they would derive significant benefit; and (5) his advice, given the terms of the draft second Will, was not free from external influence and placed him in a conflict of interest; Censure the Respondent; Fine the Respondent the sum of £8,000 to be forfeit to Her Majesty; Find the Respondent liable in the expenses of the Complainers and of the Tribunal.

Law Society-v-Philip Simon Hogg

Philip Hogg was one of a two-partner Kirkintilloch firm – Alder Hogg. His co-partner was his twin sister Alison Hazel Margaret Greer. The case relates to massive overcharging of clients. – usually defined as fraud if not involving a solicitor.

The following is for one client: The Interlocutor final amount is that for £129K of legal work they charged £219K for £90K more than they should have. So, for this one client, in relation to Mr A’s executry, it is accepted that £90K was overcharged, however the Tribunal does not explain why a staggering £129K of executry fees was deemed acceptable.

Read the full ‘published’ version of events in this shocking case here: Council of the Law Society of Scotland v Philip Simon Hogg

Edinburgh 25 August 2016.  The Tribunal having considered the Complaint dated 22 April 2016 as substituted by the Complaint dated 25 August 2016 at the instance of the Council of the Law Society of Scotland against Philip Simon Hogg, residing at 9 Crossdykes, Kirkintilloch, as amended; Find the Respondent guilty of professional misconduct in respect of his failure in his obligation to see that the firm in which he was a partner complied with the accounts rules, his failure in his duty to supervise the firm’s office manager and cashier, his failure in his duty to take steps to satisfy himself that fees being charged to executries were properly so charged, his failure to see that at all times the sums at credit of the client account exceeded the sums due to the clients and his continuing to draw from the firm while it was being financed by the overcharges to clients; Suspend the Respondent from practice for a period of five years and Direct in terms of Section 53(6) of the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 that the suspension shall take effect on the date on which these findings are intimated to the Respondent;

Law Society-v-Jane Elizabeth Steer

Elizabeth Steer worked for a Falkirk firm RMS Law. She previously worked for Russell & Aitken and now works for Allan McDougall & Co.

Ms Steer was accused of falsifying an Affidavit.

Affidavits MUST adhere to the following: 1. both parties must be physically present at the signing i.e. the solicitor (notary public) and their client 2.it must be signed at the locus specified in the Affidavit

The affidavit complied with neither of these tests, instead Ms Steer sent it to her client in England to sign and return.

Problems with the affidavit only came to light when the client gave evidence stating that she had not been in Scotland for a while – but when at Avizandum the Sheriff realised that the Affidavit was signed in Scotland at a time when the client swore she was in England.

To make matter worse, Miss Steer also tried to mislead the Law Society during the Investigation. Read the full published Interlocutor here: Council of the Law Society of Scotland v Jane Elizabeth Steer

Edinburgh 16 August 2016.  The Tribunal having considered the Complaint dated 31 May 2016 at the instance of the Council of the Law Society of Scotland against Jane Elizabeth Steer, Messrs Allan McDougall, 3 Coates Crescent, Edinburgh as amended; Find the Respondent guilty of professional misconduct in respect of her failure to act with trust and personal integrity in connection with the preparation of an affidavit which she purported to notarise on 29 October 2012, submission to the court for lodging an affidavit which contained false or misleading information on 5 November 2012 and subsequent failure on 29 June 2014 to provide a full and candid explanation to the Law Society in connection with the preparation of the affidavit and its sending to the Secondary Complainer; Censure the Respondent;

And remember, readers – wherever there is dishonesty, there is a Scottish solicitor, and the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal.

THE DISHONESTY FACTOR:

An investigation by BBC Panorama –  Lawyers Behaving Badly – featured the case of John O’Donnell, and went on to reveal the startling differences in how dishonesty in the Scottish legal profession is treated lightly compared to England & Wales – where dishonesty is automatically a striking off offence.

Alistair Cockburn, Chair, Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal. Featured in the investigation was the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal (SSDT) Chairman’s attitude towards solicitors accused of dishonesty in their representation of clients legal affairs. During the programme, it became clear that dishonesty among lawyers in Scotland is treated less severely, compared to how English regulators treat dishonesty.

Sam Poling asks: The Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal hears all serious conduct cases against solicitors. Last year they struck off nine of them. But is this robust enough?

Alistair Cockburn Chairman, Scottish solicitors discipline tribunal replies: It is robust in the sense that it doesn’t just give convictions on the basis that somebody’s brought before us charged by the Law Society.  We are mindful, particularly when reminded of the lay members, of a duty to the public.

One is always concerned when there is deception but you can have a situation where solicitors simply lose their place. They make false representations in order to improve their client’s position, not necessarily their own. And you would take that into account in deciding what the penalty was but there’s no suggestion that such conduct wasn’t deemed to be professional as conduct. 

Sam Poling: So there are levels of dishonesty which sit comfortably with you, satisfactorily with you?

Alistair Cockburn: No it’s not a question of saying sitting comfortably with me.  I’ve told you…

Sam Poling: OK that you would accept?

Alistair Cockburn: No I’d be concerned on any occasion that a solicitor was guilty of any form of dishonesty.  One has to assess the extent to which anyone suffered in consequence of that dishonesty.  You have to take into consideration the likelihood of re-offending and then take a decision.  But you make it sound as if it’s commonplace.  It isn’t.  Normally dishonesty will result in striking-off.

English QC’s agree ‘dishonesty’ is a striking off offence. The SSDT Chairman’s comments on dishonesty compared starkly with the comments of the English QC’s – who said dishonesty was undoubtedly a striking off offence.

Andrew Hopper QC: “I cant get my head round borrowing in this context. Somebody explain to me how you can borrow something without anyone knowing about it. That’s just taking.”

Andrew Boon Professor of Law, City University, London: “They actually say in the judgement they would have struck him off but the client hadn’t complained.”

Andrew Hopper QC “We’re dealing with a case of dishonesty and that affects the reputation of the profession. I would have expected this to result in striking off.”

Andrew Boon, Professor of Law: “The critical thing is the risk factor. If somebody has been dishonest once the likelihood is that they are going to be dishonest again unless they’re stopped.”

As Sam Poling went on to report: “but he [O’Donnell] wasn’t stopped. The tribunal simply restricted his license so that he had to work under the supervision of another solicitor.”

Previous reports on the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal can be found here: Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal – Pro-lawyer protection against client complaints

 

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Master Scam: Law Society switch brokers of Master Policy – insurance scheme dubbed ‘corrupt & manipulative’ provides little protection for consumers against negligent, rogue lawyers

Law Society switch brokers on dodgy insurance scheme. AN INSURANCE scheme operated by the Law Society of Scotland – which covers all Scottish solicitors – and is designed to ‘protect’ consumers when lawyers walk off with their cash and other assets – has announced a change of brokers from Marsh to Lockton.

The switch was announced last week by the Law Society – who said brokers Lockton will administer and broker the Master Policy of Professional Indemnity Insurance from 1 January 2017.

The move comes after Marsh – who managed the policy for nearly 40 years – lost the five yearly tender process in April 2016 to Lockton.

The Master Insurance Policy is a compulsory Professional Indemnity Insurance arrangement enforced by the Law Society upon all solicitors in Scotland.

The scheme includes all in-house solicitors who work for the Scottish Government and lawyers from the Government Legal Service for Scotland (GLSS) seconded around public bodies and other branches of the Executive such as the Scottish Parliament and justice bodies.

The Master Policy claims to provide cover of up to £2 million for any one claim where the solicitor is ‘established’ to have been negligent.

However, the process of establishing whether a solicitor is negligent or not – is controlled by the legal profession and the courts.

In a statement issued by the Law Society, Chief Executive Lorna Jack claimed “The Master Policy provides an important protection for solicitors’ clients when things go wrong. The insurance means that any valid claim against a Scottish solicitor will be paid – even if the solicitor is no longer in practice, no longer solvent or cannot be traced.”

However, the claims – echoed from Jack’s predecessor – Douglas Mill – were previously & spectacularly taken apart by Deputy First Minister & Finance Secretary John Swinney, during a Scottish Parliament investigation into self regulation of the legal profession in 2006.

Mr Swinney branded the Law Society & Master Policy as manipulative after Mill claimed the Law Society kept a distance from the client compensation insurance arrangements.

Mr Swinney produced an internal memo from Mill himself – who had requested a “summit meeting how to dispose of several valid claims.”

Mill went onto “swear on his granny’s grave” he and the Law Society had never intervened in a compensation claim.

However, the memo – produced by Swinney during the Holyrood hearing – came to illustrate the significant level of dishonesty and  manipulation with regard to the ‘consumer protection policy’ – which despite Mill’s claims to the contrary – rarely pays full compensation after lawyers swipe clients assets.

The Master Policy was more recently linked in a Research Report to deaths and suicides of clients who attempted to claim back hundreds of thousands of pounds taken by legal agents engaged in corrupt practices not covered by an alternative Scottish Solicitors Guarantee Fund run by the legal profession.

The independent report, compiled by legal academics Professor Frank Stephen & Dr Angela Melville from the University of Manchester School of Law – concluded the Master Policy “is simply designed to allow lawyers to sleep at night.” rather than protect consumers from rogue elements within the legal profession.

According to the report “claimants described being intimidated, being forced to settle rather than try to run a hearing without legal support, and all felt that their claims’ outcomes were not fair. Some claimants felt that they should have received more support, and that this lack was further evidence of actors within the legal system being “against” Master Policy claimants. Judges were described as being “former solicitors”, members of the Law Society – and thus, against claimants. Some described judges and other judicial officers as being very hostile to party litigants.”

Cases referred to in the report describe scenarios where consumers are commonly forced to become party litigants after the Law Society intervene in the claims process, forcing claimants legal representatives to withdraw from acting in financial damages claims against  against other solicitors.

The Research Report sourced comments from claimants: “I keep fighting cases, and they keep coming at me, and now I have become ill. But they still keep coming at me. They threw me out onto the street, I couldn’t get my medication, I’ve got nothing, I was homeless, ill, sleeping in the car. Now I am appealing. But I can’t get a solicitor. They are just shutting me down…. My health has been damaged, they kill you off. It’s a proven fact. All of us have stress related problems after years and years of stress.”

The report also linked the Law Society’s insurance scheme to suicides of clients who attempted to claim back funds appropriated by corrupt solicitors.

The report stated:  “Several claimants said that they had been diagnosed with depression; that they had high blood pressure; and several had their marriages fail due to their claim. Some had lost a lot of money, their homes, and we were told that one party litigant had committed suicide.”

The report concluded: “What has clearly come through these interviews has been the very divergent views of solicitors and claimants/consumer groups as to the primary function of the Master Policy. The former tend to see it as simply a professional negligence insurance designed to protect individual members of the profession. The latter see that its primary purpose should be to protect the public against incompetent members of the profession. Whilst these are not incompatible aims we have come to the view that the rhetoric of the Law Society of Scotland encourages the latter perception but practice is more inclined to the former. In other jurisdictions there is a more explicit statement that it is the former.”

“It is clear that establishing a valid claim under the Master Policy requires either an admission of liability on the part of the solicitor or an action to be taken by the claimant to establish liability. It is our view that the Law Society of Scotland raises the expectations of potential claimants by emphasising the Master Policy’s public protection role. It is perhaps more accurate to say that policy ensures that those with a proven claim will be able to recover.”

“Those claimants to whom we spoke were very much of the opinion that it was difficult to establish liability of a solicitor for professional negligence. It would be desirable to test this claim by looking at the record of the Master Policy in terms of claims and compensation paid. Data which would have allowed us to do this was requested from the Law Society of Scotland but was only made available the day before this Report was due to be submitted. Furthermore the Law Society of Scotland and Marsh put conditions on the use of the data in this Report which were unacceptable to us and to the Chief Executive of SLCC.”

“The limited data which we have seen on the Guarantee Fund suggests that there is a considerable difference between the value of claims and the sums paid out by the Fund. We have not been able to establish whether this is a result of the discretionary nature of the fund or simply a large divergence between parties in assessing the sums lost.”

“We would recommend that the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission undertake a longer term research project which will allow researchers to examine the experiences of a representative sample of claimants and solicitors as well as analyse data on claims provided by the Master Policy’s broker under reasonable conditions of use.”

Dr Angela Melville – who interviewed many clients for her final report, confirmed the research team did not receive a copy of the Master Policy itself after Marsh director Alistair J Sim, demanded strict conditions for the disclosure of the insurance policy’s terms.

Sim wrote in a letter to the University research team – which appears in full on the last page of the report: “Please note that the consent of Marsh and Royal & Sun Alliance plc to the production of the enclosed documents is condition on the research team agreeing not to quote from the documents, or any part of them, whether text or figures, in the report to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission.”

Sim’s letter continued: “The documents which are produced are confidential and are commercially sensitive. They are provided to the research team only and neither the documents nor copies should be provided to any other party nor should the content of the documents be disclosed to anyone outside the research team. At the conclusion of the research project, the documents should be returned with confirmation that foregoing conditions have been complied with and that no copies have been retained. If the research team is unable to agree to the foregoing conditions, the documents should be returned along with confirmation that no copies have been retained.”

No further research has been commissioned by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission since the report was published in 2009, and with the SLCC now under substantive control of the Law Society of Scotland, much of what it produces by way of research and statistics is widely recognised as having little honest value in terms of consumer protection.

The Master Policy started in November 1978 under brokers Sedgwick Forbes UK Limited, which later became part of the Marsh Group. Given the highly specialist nature of professional indemnity insurance, the brokers play a vital role in arranging and securing the insurance cover as well as providing administration, advice, as well as risk management training.

Along the years, law firms acting for the Master Policy included Simpson & Marwick – now merged with Clyde & Co, Balfour & Manson and other ‘big name’ law firms brought in to demolish consumers attempts to reclaim millions of pounds lost, misappropriated or embezzled by Scottish solicitors.

While the Master Policy is tasked with dealing with claims for negligence, the Law Society has been known to manipulate claims on a serial basis. Unsurprisingly, even claims which do succeed against the Master Policy bear little return to clients who are forced to go through lengthy court processes in front of a judiciary who have also previously paid into the same Master Policy arrangement while serving as solicitors in their earlier years prior to the bench.

 

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M’LORDS, REVISITED: Why Scotland’s wealthy, secretive, powerful & interest laden judiciary require transparency, independent oversight and a register of judicial interests

Scots judiciary require modern 21st century oversight. A DEGREE in quantum mechanics is not required to understand that the secretive closed world of Scotland’s all powerful judiciary requires a significantly greater level of transparency & accountability than the current antiquated set of rules and late night stag party sounding ‘oaths’ which loosely ‘govern’ the role of judges and their position at the top of Scotland’s justice system.

Not least due to the fact these same ‘rules’ and ‘oaths’ the judges hold in such high regard – are – mostly written by themselves, and vested legal interests.

When a small group of the most powerful in society, who earn staggering publicly funded salaries plus perks & pension pots to rival any banking executive, fly the world at taxpayers expense with big business tagging along to gather contracts in the wake of ‘respectable figures from the bench’ – and, when questions are asked of their interests – these same figures cast aside our democratically elected Scottish Parliament in the name of serving their own interests – it is time for change.

Not rocket science, right? We all get it.

Except of course, the judges, and those who have a vested interest or … something to hide.

Transparency – Good. Vested Interests – Bad.

Not a difficult equation. Certainly not one requiring a visit to a Physics laboratory.

One judge alone has done more than most for promoting the need for judicial reform – Lord Brian Gill.

Gill (73) – who dodged Holyrood more often than a pigeon dodges a Peregrine Falcon – held such disdain for transparency, the political process, and the same expectations, rules and regulations which apply to all others in public life, he just could not bear to apply those same standards to the judiciary.

The Lord President said so himself. Letter after letter to the Scottish Parliament. Threats, name calling, excuses, loopholes, blanking, it was all there, and in writing.

Never before did a country’s top judge become so aggressive towards the public’s general expectation of transparency.

And why? All because the judiciary were asked to disclose their interests. You know … like everyone else.

Time then, for the Scottish judiciary to be reminded they serve the wider community – the people. Scotland.

Not vested interests, not themselves, not their friends, Scotland. The whole of.

And, that with such unchecked power as the judiciary hold, comes the requirement for full transparency, and powerful oversight – without – of course – meddling vested legal interests.

A good start for the Scottish Government would be ensuring the Judicial Complaints Reviewer (JCR) has full and substantive powers to investigate the judiciary to – at least – the same level of scrutiny already existing in England and Wales, where the Office for Judicial Complaints publishes details of upheld complaints and cases can be appealed to the Judicial Appointment and Conduct Ombudsman.

And, don’t forget to register all your interests, M’Lords.

Here’s what others say:

The Sunday Mail newspaper reports:

BACK IN THE DOCK – NEW BROOM WANTS JUDGES TO OPEN UP

Second legal watchdog says judges’ refusal to support register of interests looks suspicious

Jan 18, 2015 By Mark Aitken

NEW judicial complaints reviewer Gillian Thompson has given backing for register despite protests from Scotland’s top judge, Lord Gill.

A LEGAL watchdog who quit after supporting a register of interest for judges has been backed by the woman who replaced her.

Moi Ali was appointed as the country’s first judicial complaints reviewer in 2011 but resigned last year claiming she had no power and got no co-operation from law chiefs.

She was also criticised by Scotland’s top judge, Lord Gill, over her support for a register of interest for judges.

But her successor Gillian Thompson has also given her backing for a register.

Holyrood’s petitions committee are considering a submission by legal campaigner Peter Cherbi for a judicial register of interests which could details gifts, hospitality and links to outside bodies such as law firms.

In a letter to the committee, Thompson wrote: “We live in an age in which transparency about interests and activities of those in the public eye is regarded as good practice.

“There is a perception that anything less is the result of attempts to hide things.

“In the case of judges, it is clear that court users and the public more widely seek reassurances of fairness and impartiality.”

Lord Gill has repeatedly dismissed calls for a register of interests.

But Cherbi said: “Two judicial complaints reviewers in a row have supported a register while Lord Gill suspiciously clings to secrecy and refuses to accept transparency must be applied equally to judges as it is to everyone else in public life.”

Sunday Mail:

WATCHDOG’S WITHERING ATTACK ON JUDICIARY

MY FINAL VERDICT ON JUDGES? A LAW UNTO THEMSELVES

Investigator says she got no co-operation and only met law chief once in three years

By Mark Aitken Political Editor Sunday Mail 07 December 2014

A former watchdog who probed complaints about legal chiefs has hit out at Scotland’s judges in her farewell report.

Moi Ali was appointed the country’s first ever judicial complaints reviewer in 2011 but announced her decision to quit earlier this year because she had no power and the role was “tokenistic”.

Her final report details complaints of alleged racial bigotry, bullying, lying, conflicts of interest and making secret recordings of meetings.

And Ali, who left the role in August, reveals Scotland’s top judge, Lord Gill,only met her once.

She said: “Unfortunately, there has been little interest in the positive difference that the JCR could make.

“Although I have had a good working relationship with the judicial office, I have met the Lord President just once in three years.

“My interactions with both the Lord President’s office and the judicial office have focused more on what I cannot do rather than what I can do and as such, an opportunity for whole system improvement has been lost.

Reform campaigner Peter Cherbi said: The current system of judges slapping each other on the back and dealing  with their own complaints is clearly unfit for purpose.

“Ms Ali found investigations by the judicial office were delayed for months, officials were confused as to their own procedures, and complaints were treated with the disdain.

“One complaint filed by a mother on behalf of her disabled son was kicked out because too much time had passed and the judge could have forgotten the events. There’s not much point in having judges who forget what they had for breakfast but can remember to pick up a £200,000 salary and all the expenses trappings of judicial office.”

Independent MSP John Wilson said:”It is up to the new justice Secretary to take a serious look at the report by Moi Ali and develop a system that is independent of the Lord President to bring confidence in the judicial review process.”

A judicial office spokesman said: “The judicial office has fully co-operated and will continue to work with the judicial complaints reviewer to take forward the recommendations of the Lord President’s consultation on the complaints process.

Sunday Herald:

Clash over probe into allegations of bullying in the justice system

Paul Hutcheon, Investigations Editor Sunday 7 December 2014

TWO of Scotland’s key legal bodies have clashed over an investigation into a member of the judiciary.

The fight is between the Judicial Office for Scotland (JOS) – headed by the country’s top judge – and the watchdog responsible for holding it to account.

The legal watchdog attacked the JOS for its handling of a probe into claims a judicial office-holder was guilty of bullying and of making covert recordings.

Complaints against judges, ­sheriffs and justices of the peace are handled by the JOS, which provides support to the Lord President.

The investigations are carried out by fellow members of the judiciary.

If a complainant is still unhappy, the Judicial Complaints Reviewer (JCR) can examine whether the probe complied with the rules.

Moi Ali, who recently stood down as the JCR after saying she did not have adequate powers, published her final annual report last week.

She produced details of an extraordinary case in which the JOS dealt with allegations of impropriety by a judicial office-holder. An unnamed organisation that “works closely with the courts” complained of bullying by a member of the judiciary, adding that the same figure had made secret recordings.

The organisation was not satisfied with the JOS probe into the case and contacted Ali.

On the bullying allegation, Ali said she was hampered after the “nominated judge” who carried out the first investigation failed to put all correspondence in the complaints file.

After the complainant asked for all tapes and transcripts obtained during the probe, the request was initially rejected.

Ali described this response a “an unnecessary lack of transparency that could damage external confidence in the investigation process”.

She also described as a “lack of even-handedness” the fact that the judicial officer-holder under investigation received an ­apology for delays in the case, but the complainant did not.

The organisation’s witnesses were also not interviewed.

The original complaint was not upheld by the JOS, but Ali concluded: “I was concerned about how the conclusion was reached that the allegations could not be substantiated in light of the evidence that I saw in the complaints file.”

On the recordings allegation, the judicial office-holder under investigation had said the tapes were not made “in any secret way”, although permission was not sought.

Ali believed this complaint should have been included as part of the other probe, or referred anew to the JOS, but she said: “Neither path was followed. The complaint was never investigated. No explanation was offered as to why not.”

In the two reviews Ali carried out, she found seven rule breaches.

Scottish Conservative chief whip John Lamont said: “In almost no other walk of life do you have an organisation which is only accountable to itself in instances like these.

“The public expectation is that – when there’s a case to answer – an independent or separate authority should be asking the questions.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “Moi Ali has previously reported weaknesses in the systems through which the public can complain about the conduct of the judiciary and seek redress.

“Some of the incidents reported suggest that those involved in the complaints process were more concerned with stopping Moi Ali from doing her job than behaving responsibly and responding to the issues that had been raised.”

A spokesperson for the ­Judicial Office said the recordings were made in court, not during meetings, adding: “The Judicial Office does not comment on individual complaints as the information is confidential. All complaints are fully investigated in accordance with the relevant rules.

“In respect of recording in court, it is open to the court to have proceedings recorded where it considers it to be appropriate.”

Sunday Herald:

 Judicial watchdog quits from ‘straightjacket’ role

Paul Hutcheon Investigations Editor Sunday 26 January 2014

SCOTLAND’S legal watchdog tasked with holding judges to account is to stand down after complaining that she has “no power to make things different and better”.

Moi Ali, the country’s first Judicial Complaints Reviewer (JCR), will not seek a second term because she believes her post is “tokenism”.

The JCR post was created by the Scottish Government to introduce an element of independence in the system of self-regulation for scrutinising judges.

However, Ali’s role is restricted to looking at whether the Judicial Office for Scotland (JOS) – the in-house body led by the Lord President – has dealt with complaints correctly.

She cannot investigate complaints against judges herself and is unable to make recommendations.

Ali, who took office in 2011, also works on a tiny budget of around £2000, whereas a beefed-up Ombudsman south of the border has nearly £500,000.

In an interview with the Sunday Herald last year, Ali said she had found the job “enormously frustrating and difficult”, adding: “Fundamentally the problem is the legislation … it’s judges judging judges’ conduct.

“I’m presented as the independent element, but without the powers I can’t be independent.”

She added: “Really, it’s difficult to make an impact within the constraints that I’m in at the moment. It’s a bit like being in a straitjacket.”

Ali also claimed Scotland was lagging behind England in holding judges to account, claiming: “Citizens here have a lot less protection than they do in England and Wales.”

The JCR has also encountered difficulties with the JOS and claimed the post amounted to “window dressing”.

The Sunday Herald has learned that Ali, whose term ends in August, will not seek an extended period in office, where she could have served five years. She wrote to Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill before Christmas to inform him of her decision. MacAskill will have to find a new JCR, an appointment that must be made “with the consent” of the Lord President.

In her latest annual report, she found 20 breaches of the rules by the JOS last year.

Ali said: “I believe that I’ve been able to make a difference, albeit in a small way – which is not only personally satisfying, but important for the people who use my service. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.

“I feel that I have achieved all that I can within the constraints of legislation that has created a JCR role that has independence without the power to change anything.

“I can freely comment, criticise, persuade, suggest, speak out – but I have no power to make things different and better.

“Without the ability to implement change, the role feels tokenistic and I’ve never been one to go along with tokenism.”

Graeme Pearson, Scottish Labour’s justice spokesman and a former top police officer, said: “Moi Ali accepted an important responsibility and was keen to do the job.

“She should have been supported and encouraged – instead her role developed as an unwitting sop for this SNP Government at a time our justice system requires genuine openness and accountability. She and the Scottish public deserved better.”

Liberal Democrat MSP Alison McInnes said: “The Justice Secretary asked Ms Ali to do a job and then point-blank refused to give her the support and resources she needed to deliver. This is simply not good enough.

“Moi Ali’s frustration over the lack of support she has received from ministers is wholly understandable. Her decision to stand down is an indictment of the lacklustre approach to transparency that the Justice Secretary has taken.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We do not comment on personnel issues. We thank Ms Ali for the work she has done in her post to date.”

Sunday Mail:

Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill urged to improve scrutiny of Scotland’s judges after claims they stifle public complaints

We, Scotland’s judges, stand accused of making the process of complaining about us impossibly difficult. You, our toothless watchdog, have been deliberating. So, have you reached a verdict? YOU’RE GUILTY, M’LUDS

MOI ALI, the country’s first ever Judicial Complaints Reviewer, says she is currently powerless to do more to help the public understand the complex legal complaints system.

News Special : By Russell Findlay Sunday Mail 15 Dec 2013

KENNY MacASKILL has been urged to get tough with Scotland’s judges after a watchdog warned they are stifling complaints and dodging scrutiny.

Moi Ali was appointed by the SNP’s Justice Secretary as the country’s first ever Judicial Complaints Reviewer but, before delivering her second annual report tomorrow, she voiced fears that her role is mere “window dressing” and needs more teeth if it is to hold judges to account.

Ali says people find it virtually impossible to understand confusing rules about how to complain about judges, sheriffs and JPs. She said: “They are legal rules, written by lawyers for other lawyers to use. To me, the perspective is completely wrong. You write the rules for the public, not for lawyers.”

She believes that former solicitor MacAskill must bring in new laws to end judicial self-regulation.

Ali, who also sits on the Scottish Police Authority board said: “I think fundamentally the problem is the legislation. “The way it’s created, it’s about self- regulation so you have judges judging judges’ conduct. There isn’t really an independent element.“I’m presented as the independent element but, without the powers, I can’t be independent. We have the appearance of independent oversight but not the reality.”

Ali’s post was created by the Scottish Government in the face of fierce opposition from judges. With a £2000 annual budget, no staff and no office, she has been forced to work for free in addition to the three days per month for which she is paid.

She said: “There was a genuine recognition that something needed to be done. “But I think with any professional group, whether it’s the judiciary or any other powerful group of people, it’s quite difficult to take them on. “And I think that appearing to do something when actually, perhaps, doing the bare minimum is an easier way of addressing it. It’s a bit like being in a straitjacket.”

Ali has caused consternation in government and judicial circles by publicly admitting she is powerless. All she can do is review how complaints are handled by the Judicial Office for Scotland, which is headed by top judge Lord President Lord Gill.

She said: “I’m sorry to say that I do think there was an element of window dressing. “The system is about investigating complaints about the judiciary but that whole system is run by the judiciary. “Without any proper, external, genuinely independent oversight, you’re not going to have public faith and confidence. “I know people will be very unhappy with me using the term window dressing but I think there is an element of that.”

Scotland’s system trails behind England and Wales, who have an Office for Judicial Complaints.

In addition, there is a powerful independent ombudsman who can overturn decisions, order reinvestigations and compensate victims.

Ali said: “England and Wales started doing this, and a whole lot more, in 2006. “We’re not even where they were at when they started so we’ve got an awful lot of catching up to do. “The fact we have a JCR and not an ombudsman, to me, says it all.”

Some senior figures within the judicial system privately dismiss Ali as an “outsider” and unqualified to comment.

She has also angered judges by backing a Holyrood petition by legal reform campaigner Peter Cherbi calling for a register of interests for judges.

Lord Gill sparked cross-party anger by twice rejecting a plea by Holyrood to give evidence to the committee. He said the Scotland Act allowed him to avoid parliamentary scrutiny as it ensures judicial independence from political meddling.

But critics said that the Act is to protect judges from being quizzed over courtroom decisions not administration issues.

Ali said: “I think it’s a confusion between independence and accountability. I really do think it’s as basic as that. The dividing line is completely clear.”

Ali has led by example by voluntarily publishing her own register of interests, even though it took six months to get it on the JCR website. Her annual report details 20 alleged breaches of the complaints rules by the Judicial Office.

She has also scored two victories for the public since taking the three-year post.

One is that Lord Gill has now agreed to supply people with some details about the outcome of
their complaint. And he has also agreed to inform the JCR about the outcome of cases which she refers to him.

She said: “I’ve made some small differences but it’s progress. “But really it’s difficult to make an impact within the constraints that I’m in at the moment.”

MacAskill has already dismissed calls to tackle the powerful judiciary with new laws but Ali wants him to think again.

She said: “In the past few years in Scotland, there have been some really good things being done in all sorts of different sectors. “I don’t understand why this appears to be the one sector that is really behind. “I don’t think there’s an appetite for looking at the legislation again. “I think it will have to be looked at again at some point because, at the moment, Scots citizens have a lot less protection than they do in England and Wales. “If I was asked to create something to deal fairly, effectively, efficiently and transparently with complaints about the judiciary, I would not invent this.”

The Judicial Office for Scotland: “The review of the existing complaints rules ends tomorrow. “The responses will then be considered in full by the Lord President.”

JUDGES IN DOCK

Probed after bawling out a dog walker

A judge was accused of a “tyrannical rant” at a woman walking her dog. The dog walker was left “shaking with nerves” and felt “very intimidated” by the unnamed judge, who told her to put her pet on a lead.

Her complaint was dismissed as being “without substance” by the Judicial Office for Scotland because he was not acting as a judge at the time. But the Judicial Office’s own guidelines state that complaints can be made about judges’ conduct inside and outside court.

The dog walker said ; “The point is that he is a judge and. as such, may be expected to adhere to a certain standard of personal conduct and behaviour to all members of the public.” Ali agreed and upheld the complaint that the Judicial Office had breached their own rules.

Accused of insensitivity over disability.

A disabled woman complained about a judge who, she claimed, ignored her medical condition. The woman said that the judge did not consider her “mental and physical disabilities and current aggressive medical treatment”.

The Judicial Office kicked out the complaint because it was “primarily about judicial decisions”. But Ali found that the Judicial Office rules were breached because the complaint also related to the judge’s conduct so should have been investigated. She also said that “further investigation” would be needed to establish if the judge had been insensitive.

However, Lord Gill disagreed with Ali’s opinion.

IF I AM NOT SURE WHAT THIS LEGALESE MEANS

Watchdog Moi Ali slates the legal jargon which is used to deter ordinary Scots from complaining about judges.

She fears the complex Judicial Office for Scotland rules are not fit for purpose.

She said ; “If you have a set of rules that you can pick up and not understand, then they can’t be fit for purpose.

And the public don’t understand. They are not written in any understandable way.

I don’t understand the purpose of some of the rules and some of them are cross-referenced with Acts of Parliament.”

Ali has submitted a damning 25 page report to Scotland’s top judge, Lord President Lord Gill, who is reviewing the rules.

In it, she says : “One of my principal concerns relates to the style and tone of the rules and the way in which they have been constructed, giving an impression that they are devised to deter people from complaining, to find reasons to reject a complaint at the earliest opportunity and to over-protect the judiciary.”

She cites numerous examples of archaic language which many people would struggle to understand.

For example, Section 5.4.b states : “If sent by electronic means indicated to be acceptable a document is to be treated as valid only if it is capable of being used for subsequent reference.”

Ali has urged Lord Gill to bring in new rules which will be “fair, proportionate, transparent and easy to understand.”

Sunday Herald:

 My position is window-dressing, says legal watchdog with budget of £2000

Paul Hutcheon Investigations Editor Sunday 15 December 2013

SCOTLAND’S judicial watchdog says her post is mere “window dressing” and has blasted the system set up to investigate judges as unfair and not fit for purpose.

Moi Ali, the Judicial Complaints Reviewer (JCR), also said she was “really baffled” that the SNP ­Government had not embraced reform, and claimed the country was lagging behind England.

MSPs yesterday welcomed the intervention.

Judges are responsible for ­probing complaints against their colleagues under the model of self-regulation, overseen by the Judicial Office for Scotland (JOS).

The rules that govern the system are also drawn up by the Lord President, who is the head of the judiciary. Ali can step in if an ­individual believes a complaint has not been handled properly, but her powers do not include ­ordering ­re-investigations or ­imposing sanctions.

Her second annual report is published tomorrow and it reveals she found 20 breaches of the rules last year.

However, in an interview with the Sunday Herald, Ali, 50, backs an overhaul of self-regulation.

“Fundamentally the problem is the legislation … it’s judges judging judges’ conduct.

“I’m presented as the ­independent element, but without the powers I can’t be independent.”

She added: “Without any proper, external, genuinely independent oversight, you’re not going to have public faith and confidence.”

Ali, who also sits on the boards of the Scottish Police Authority and the Scottish Ambulance Service, believes the limitations of the post are stark.

She said: “I’ve made some small differences and they are small … But really it’s difficult to make an impact within the constraints that I’m in at the moment. It’s a bit like being in a straitjacket.”

South of the Border, the ­equivalent ombudsman has staff, a budget of £500,000 and beefed-up powers.

Ali, by contrast, is on her own and has a budget of about £2000 a year.

“Citizens here have a lot less protection than they do in England and Wales,” she said. “I think that Scotland is leading the way in all sorts of areas – healthcare and education – but here, this is probably one of the few areas where Scotland is playing catch-up.”

Asked why the SNP Government was ­resistant to changing the complaints system, she said: “I have to say I don’t know, I’m really baffled.”

In retrospect, Ali believes the JCR post was not taken seriously by those who created it. “I’m sorry to say that I do think there was an element of window dressing.

“I think that for any professional group, whether it’s the judiciary or any other powerful group of people, it’s quite difficult to take them on.”

On the subject of her tiny budget, Ali said she recognised there was no appetite for a “great big quango”, but noted: “It seems to have gone too far the other way and there’s been an attempt to create something on the cheap.

“I know people will be very unhappy with me using the term ‘window dressing’, but I think there is an element of that.”

However, Ali has helped reform the way in which the JOS conducts the investigation process.

The Lord President has agreed to inform her of the final outcome of any referrals she makes to him, while a summary of the initial JOS investigation report will also be provided to complainers.

Both changes resulted from Ali’s pressure. Even so, she is realistic about the capacity for meaningful change within the status quo.

“If I were asked to create something to deal fairly, effectively, efficiently [and] transparently, with complaints about the judiciary … I would not invent this.”

She is highly critical of the Lord President’s rules that govern the investigation system: “They are legal rules written by lawyers, for other lawyers to use. To me, the perspective is completely wrong.”

She added: “If you have a set of rules that you can pick up and not understand, then they can’t be fit for purpose. They are not written in an understandable way.”

She has contributed to the Lord President’s consultation on changing the rules, but says the practice of judges investigating their colleagues is the bigger problem:

“All of the correspondence I’ve had, people feel that’s not right, that it’s not fair. Even if the Judicial Office act completely fairly, and apply the rules fairly, public perception is really important.”

She does not regret taking up the post, but said her stint had been “enormously frustrating and difficult”.

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes MSP said: “Moi Ali has been admirable in her pursuit of transparency within the judicial system. The ­Scottish Government should treat her concerns with seriousness, as the current system of self-regulation is not as transparent as it could be. It is clear that there is more work to be done to ensure public confidence in the judicial system.”

Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: “If the Judicial Complaints Reviewer believes her position is simply window dressing and that the current system is not fit for purpose, then the Scottish Government should look into these concerns.”

A spokeswoman for the ­Judicial Office for Scotland said: “It would be inappropriate to comment in advance of the publication of the Judicial Complaints Reviewer’s report on December 16.”

A Scottish Government ­spokesman said: “The JCR has carried out only a small number of reviews since the post was created two years ago. It would be premature to review the powers of the role at this point in time.”

Sunday Mail:

What's the point of a watchdog without teeth - Sunday Mail 22 September 2013WHAT’S THE POINT OF A WATCHDOG WITHOUT TEETH?

REVEALED JUDGES ESCAPE SCRUTINY

By Russell Findlay Sunday Mail 22 Sept 2013

A watchdog probing complaints about judges yesterday urged Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to give her some real bite.

Moi Ali admits there’s “little point” to her role as Scotland’s first ever Judicial Complaints Reviewer because of its lack of teeth.

She said: “It’s fair to say because I don’t actually have any powers. There’s no real independent oversight.If you provide oversight without powers, then there’s almost little point to it.”

Judges have opposed an independent ombudsman to oversee complaints against them.

Their protests resulted in Justice Minister MacAskill creating the “powerless” JCR who works three days per month, has a £2000 annual budget and no staff.

Complaints against judges are initially handled by the Judicial Office for Scotland, which is headed by the Lord President Lord Gill.

The complainer can ask Ali to review how their case was handled – but she can take no action.

In England and Wales, the Office for Judicial Complaints has 15 staff and publishes details of upheld complaints. People can then appeal to the Judicial Appointment and Conduct Ombudsman, headed by Sir John Brigstocke, with 14 staff.

His post is the equivalent to Ali’s but he can overturn decisions, order reinvestigations and ask for victims to be compensated.

Ali said: “It’s hard to say why, if you make a complaint about a judge in England or Wales, the powers available are so much wider compared to what happens in Scotland. Their approach couldn’t be more different in terms of openness.”

Lord Gill has snubbed Holyrood’s plea to discuss legal campaigner Peter Cherbi’s petition for a judicial register of interests. He cited the Scotland Act which says judges can’t be forced to attend parliament. But critics say the Act only refers to judges’ courtroom decisions.

Ali last week told the committee: “Clearly politicians should have no part in influencing judicial decisions.

But judicial accountability is a completely separate issue.

“That’s the issue that cuts through all of this for me.”

During last week’s hearing, Scottish Tory deputy leader Jackson Carlaw launched a colourful attack on Scotland’s top judge.

Carlaw said Lord Gill had an “Edwardian establishment disdain for the hoi polloi”.

He also said there was a feeling “the swish of judicial ermine and velvet should cow into deference both public and the legislature”.

Committee chairman, Labour MSP David Stewart, and his SNP deputy Chic Brodie plan to meet Lord Gill in private and raise Ali’s lack of power with MacAskill.

The Scottish Government said: “We note the committee plans to raise these issues and will respond in due course.”

Sunday Mail:

Judicial Investigator Moi Ali left in the dark over complaints against Scottish Judges - NO She May Not 10 Feb 2013 Sunday MailJUDICIAL INVESTIGATOR LEFT IN THE DARK

May the watchdog appointed by the Scottish Government to investigate complaints against judges have leave to approach the bench, Your Honours?
NO.. SHE MAY NOT

SILENCE IN COURT Lord Gill has not met judicial investigator so far.
EXCLUSIVE, By Russell Findlay, Sunday Mail 10 Feb 2013

A watchdog appointed to look into complaints against Scotland’s judges fears she is being frozen out.

Moi Ali has accused the country’s most senior judge, Lord President Lord Gill, of undermining her work by blocking access to vital documents.

She revealed her frustration in her first annual report since taking up the newly-created role of Judicial Complaints Reviewer.

Ali said she was only seeing the correspondence between the Judicial Office, who act for the judges, and the complainers.

But she was not allowed to see the internal memos and reports between the office and the judges about complaints.

She said: “I believe that in order to conduct a review, and to make wider recommendations on complaints handling, I need to see files in their entirety. “Without this, it is difficult to satisfy myself, let alone complainers, as to the fairness of the process. “I have continued to complete reviews but have made it clear to complainers that I have not had access to all documentation in their complaint file.”

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill defied judicial opposition to create the part-time job to monitor how complaints against judges, sheriffs and justices of the peace are handled.

And Ali fears there is still resistance from within the judiciary to her role as an independent investigator.

She said: “With any profession, there’s a feeling that regulation should come from within. “But this is the first time that the judiciary have been exposed to this kind of scrutiny, which other professional groups are more used to. “Most have accepted there is some kind of mechanism to scrutinise their conduct. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a free and independent judiciary.”

Ali also revealed that she has still not met 70-year-old Lord Gill, who was appointed to his £214,165-a-year post last June, and did not meet his predecessor Lord Hamilton.

She said: “I’m not overly concerned but I’m slightly surprised that the Lord President did not proactively suggest a meeting. I don’t need to meet him but I think it would have sent out a positive message.”

Ali is more concerned at the decision to block her access to documents.

She said: “This came to light because in review number one I was sent all the documents but then I didn’t get the same ones for the second review. “At that point I discovered that I had been given them in error the first time. “I can’t see any reason why and that worries me because I can’t understand it.”

Ali also voiced concerns that judges being investigated could evade punishment by quitting before the probe is complete. And she found there has been a breach in the rules in the way one of the four complaints she reviewed had been handled. Ali also urged the judiciary staff to use plain English when dealing with the public.

Her lack of administrative support was also highlighted – on her first day, she did not have a computer, printer, phone, email address or stationery – and she said it meant she was “unable to give the level of service that I would like to provide”.

A Judicial Office for Scotland spokeswoman said: “In the short time the JCR has been in the post, we have worked very closely with Ms Ali in implementing, developing and reviewing the rules and how they are applied.

“With any new system, there is always a period of adaptation and adjustment and we are grateful to Ms Ali for the helpful suggestions and recommendations she has put forward and which, for the most part, have been implemented.

“A review of the rules is due to take place shortly and the Lord President is committed to working constructively to ensure the complaints procedure develops effectively.”

TOP JUDGE REJECTS REGISTER OF INTERESTS

Lord Gill has rejected calls for judges to register their interests – because he fears they may be harassed by “aggressive media”.

A petition lodged with the Scottish Parliament is calling on the judiciary to reveal any commercial, business or legal links in case they raise possible conflicts with their cases.

But in a letter to the public petitions committee, Scotland’s most senior judge said current safeguards are enough. Lord Gill said: “In practical terms, it would be impossible for all judicial office holders to identify all the interests that could conceivably arise in any future case.

“The terms of the judicial oath and the statement of principles of judicial ethics ensure that such a difficulty does not arise and that the onus is on the judicial office holder to declare any interest at the outset.” He said details held on a register could be abused by “aggressive media or hostile individuals, including dissatisfied litigants”.

The call for a register has also been rejected by the Law Society of Scotland.

 

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PURGE LAW: ‘Reform minded’ Legal complaints chief ousted for Law Society insider as solicitors regulatory body retakes control of ‘independent’ Scottish Legal Complaints Commission

Law Society’s Neil Stevenson retakes complaints quango for lawyers.THE LEGAL profession’s definition of ‘independence’ took a full turn yesterday as the ‘independent’ Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) and the Law Society of Scotland announced long time Law Society insider Neil Stevenson is to be the SLCC’s latest Chief Executive, replacing former Foreign Office careerist Matthew Vickers who took on the role in June 2012.

Stevenson’s appointment to the tarnished position as head of the pro-lawyer anti-client SLCC – created in 2008 and at a staggering cost since to Scots clients of over £20 million in complaints levies paid by solicitors and recovered via legal fees to clients – comes after widely reported evidence showing the SLCC has failed to live up to expectations of dealing with rising numbers of rogue solicitors who rip off their clients.

And, the Law Society’s decision to retake control of the ‘independent’ SLCC by placing one of their own in charge also comes after a challenging year for self regulation of the legal profession – left reeling from the effects of the damaging BBC Scotland investigation “Lawyers Behaving Badly” –  which blew the mask off lawyers investigating their own and legal aid fraud.

For the past fifteen months since the BBC programme aired in January 2014,  the Law Society have demanded significant changes at the SLCC after concluding the hapless complaints quango – staffed mostly by former Law Society insiders – failed to stand up for lawyers during the BBC Scotland investigation.

And, earlier this year, further friction between the two legal regulators emerged when the SLCC criticised a rigged poll organised and funded by the Law Society which claimed solicitors are ‘well liked’.

Articles on the client satisfaction poll – published in some media outlets were written by the Law Society’s own president Alistair Morris in which the Law Society President extolled the virtues of lawyers, backed up with dodgy statistics.

However the full extent of how the poll had been rigged –  featured in an investigation by DOI reported here: OWNED POLL: Law Society ‘scripted’ survey criticised by Scottish Legal Complaints Commission – new data reveals few clients of dodgy lawyers ask legal regulators for help

Another twist to the friction between the SLCC & Law Society emerged after it was revealed a series of communications between the SLCC and law reformers brought about a tipping point forcing Law Society bosses to act.

The communications – which fell into the hands of the Law Society – ‘in real time’ – appear to have helped the decision to force out the then SLCC CEO – Matt Vickers – who stood down out of the blue earlier this year to pursue a career at Ombudsman Services, reported here: GONE MEDIATIN’: Pro-lawyer legal regulator loses another CEO as Matthew Vickers leaves Scottish Legal Complaints Commission for Ombudsman Services role

The replacement of an outsider with a Law Society insider as head of the SLCC have led to further suggestions the anti-consumer quango can do nothing without a say so from the Law Society.

In an announcement the SLCC said yesterday: The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, the independent body for complaints against solicitors, advocates and other legal practitioners in Scotland, has announced the appointment of Neil Stevenson as its new Chief Executive Officer.

Neil Stevenson has been with the Law Society of Scotland since 2004.  He is currently the Society’s Director of Representation and Professional Support.  He will be joining the Commission in mid-July.

As the new CEO Neil’s priorities will be to drive the full implementation of the SLCC’s strategy – to provide an excellent complaint resolution service for legal complaints in Scotland, to provide guidance on service standards to the profession and consumers and to raise the confidence in the legal profession in Scotland.

Bill Brackenridge, Chair of the SLCC welcomed the appointment. He said : “I am delighted to welcome such an accomplished professional to the Commission; he will inspire our staff to deliver their challenging role and move the Commission to a higher level.

Neil Stevenson, the new CEO said “I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Law Society and am grateful to have all the opportunities and challenges afforded to me.  I am looking forward to joining the SLCC and working with the staff to deliver some very challenging objectives.”

The Society’s chief executive, Lorna Jack commented: “I am delighted for Neil and congratulate him on his appointment. As someone who understands the legal profession and with his passion, good judgment and positive attitude, I know Neil is going to make an outstanding contribution as SLCC chief executive.”

Jack continued: “Whilst I am sorry to lose Neil from the Law Society, we will benefit from his hard work for many years to come. In his time as director of representation, he has helped to transform the range of services and support we offer the profession. He has championed our innovative new Smartcard project, ensured we remain a leader on equality and diversity, and has helped develop our new long term strategy. All of us at the Law Society are grateful for everything he has done.

“I am now looking forward to working with Neil in his new role. The relationship between the Law Society and the SLCC has improved greatly over the last few years. Given the specific roles we play in the regulation of solicitors, this has been important, particularly for the public who depend on both of our organisations to work together to protect their interests.”

The current biography of Neil Stevenson on the Law Society of Scotland’s website says: “Neil joined the education team of the Society in 2004, having previously worked on medical and dental training for NHS Education for Scotland. He holds an Edinburgh law degree and a masters in management, and has previous experience in the oil and gas sector and management research. Neil is responsible for the confidential helpline service provided by the solicitors in professional practice and for the provision of CPD to the profession through Update. The professional support team focuses on ensuring the Society listens to and learns from its members, campaigns on their behalf, and provides support services to individuals and firms. He is a director of both the independent charity LawCare and the Scottish Arbitration Centre.”

Stevenson’s directorship of “Law Care” – a charity set up by the legal profession to help and defend solicitors who have been found out for ripping off their clients – will be of interest to clients who end up in the unenviable position of having to approach the SLCC to make a complaint about their solicitor. The charity has filed numerous reports with the pro-lawyer SLCC & Law Society Complaints Committees – pleading for corrupt solicitors to be let off the hook on everything from embezzlement to faking up paperwork.

Stevenson’s directorship of the Scottish Arbitration Centre may also put him in conflict of interest with SLCC policy of forcing complainants into the murky world of arbitration – where clients who are ripped off for large sums of cash by their solicitor end up with only a pittance in return. The Scottish Arbitration Centre – started by the Scottish Government and backed by lawyers, is a sponge for taxpayers cash and international trips by lawyers & former judges who are trying to promote Scotland’s tarnished legal sector as a haven for international mediation.

REVOLVING DOOR OF LEGAL REGULATOR CHIEF EXECUTIVES:

The post of the SLCC’s Chief Executive has seen considerable controversy since the legal quango was created in 2008. Now, eight years on and five Chief Executives later, the SLCC is looking for another boss to steer it through troubled waters and continuing accusations of pro-lawyer bias.

mkmc slcc openingMacAskill as Justice Secretary backed secret payoff for ‘too ill to work’ former Chief Executive. The SLCC’s first ‘appointed’ Chief Executive – Eileen Masterman – held the role for less than a year, negotiated a secret, substantial payoff backed personally by the Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, and resigned from her role at the SLCC on grounds of “ill health”. Eileen Masterman then returned to work for her former employer – the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) as a “complaints reviewer”, and was accused of whitewashing the circumstances of the death of a baby at the NHS Forth Valley Hospital – reported by Diary of Injustice & the Sunday Mail newspaper here : Deputy First Minister to look into death of baby McKenzie Wallace after parents complain of ‘whitewash’ report by SPSO investigator Eileen Masterman

The SLCC’s first Chief Executive – civil servant Richard Smith – resigned from the role after disagreements about how the SLCC would act as a regulator. Mr Smith was then replaced by another civil servant before Mrs Masterman was eventually appointed as the first ‘official’ CEO.

Concluding a turbulent few months which saw exchanges of letters between current Deputy First Minister John Swinney and Masterman over claims and counter-claims about the Master Policy – reported here: SLCC’s Eileen Masterman resigns, questions remain on attempt to mislead Cabinet Finance Chief John Swinney over secret meetings with insurers Marsh’ Masterman stood down from the SLCC – which by that time had suffered significant reputational damage.

After a speedy recruitment round, Rosemary Agnew then became the SLCC’s fourth Chief Executive, reported here: The £80K job no-one wants : Lawyers lobby seek FIFTH time unlucky Chief Executive for Scottish Legal Complaints Commission role. However Ms Agnew later resigned to take up the post of Scottish Information Commissioner in early 2012.

The SLCC’s current and now outgoing CEO Matthew Vickers took on the role in June 2012, reported here: “Customer Service” main focus for Ex-Foreign Office Consul taking over as FIFTH Chief Exec at ‘anti-consumer’ Scottish Legal Complaints Commission.

 

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Consumer Focus Scotland supports publication of solicitors complaints outcomes as law regulator SLCC ‘launders’ survey data out of FOI reach

Consumer Focus Scotland logoConsumer Focus Scotland support publication of complaints against Scottish solicitors. OUTCOMES of complaints against Scottish solicitors should be published, says Glasgow based consumer protection body Consumer Focus Scotland in response to a new study being undertaken by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) of law firms’ complaints handling, reported by Diary of Injustice at the beginning of May, Consumers ‘locked out of debate’ as Scottish Legal Complaints Commission carries out yet more research on how solicitors handle complaints

The SLCC’s latest study which is seeking disclosure of information from individual law firms on how solicitors deal with complaints has drawn sharp criticism from the legal profession itself and provoked calls by lawyers lobby groups to boycott the survey after fears were raised that actual complaints data would end up being published by the media as a result of Freedom of Information requests to the SLCC.

SLCCLawyer’s so-called ‘independent’ regulator said it would avoid Freedom of Information laws by stashing data out of reach of media. Proving the SLCC has little interest in public opinion or confidence in it’s alleged role as an ‘independent’ regulator of solicitors, the law complaints quango responded to lawyers concerns by saying they would dodge Freedom of Information legislation by refusing to look at the actual complaints data gathered up by research company TNS Research International TNS-BMRB who are under contract to carry out the survey. The FOI dodge was reported by Diary of Injustice earlier in the month, here : Law regulator SLCC responds to lawyers call to boycott complaints research : ‘We will AVOID Freedom of Information by stashing data with researchers’

Responding to questions over the SLCC’s latest complaints survey which effectively shuts out consumers, a spokesperson for Consumer Focus Scotland said : We are pleased that the SLCC is undertaking research to improve its knowledge of the ways in which firms of solicitors deal with complaints. Ideally, consumer complaints about legal services should be dealt with quickly and effectively at a local level, by the business or professional involved, so far as possible. Many complaints can be resolved by way of an apology or informal agreement at this stage, and only where local resolution fails, should the complaint then go to a higher complaints handling body.”

The spokesperson continued : “We know consumers find it important to see complaints data so wider consideration of how this might be best achieved for legal services in Scotland would be helpful. The SLCC currently produces some complaints data within their annual report. This includes information on the number of complaints it received, the areas of law to which these relate and the stage of the SLCC’s process at which these complaints were resolved.”

“In its ‘Complaints about solicitors’ research, the Scottish Consumer Council, one of our predecessor bodies recommended that performance targets for each stage of the complaints process be published. Case study examples are published routinely by ombudsmen in the public sector, and used to be published by the Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman in its annual report. In 2010, a survey of our consumer network of volunteers to inform the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman’s model complaints handling process found that the publication of the outcomes of complaints was a particularly important principle for these consumers”

Consumer Focus Scotland in their previous incarnation as the Scottish Consumer Council conducted several studies & investigations into the notorious difficulties encountered by members of the public who are forced by circumstances to file complaints about their solicitors to the self regulating Law Society of Scotland and ‘independent’ Scottish Legal Complaints Commission. In what is now well over two decades of surveys & investigations by consumer groups & bodies into the complaints processes of Scotland’s legal profession, very little has changed from the 1999 SCC report “Complaints About Solicitors”, with most clients encountering a significant anti-consumer prejudice when making complaints about their solicitors to the legal profession’s in-house closed shop regulators.

Scottish Consumer Council recommended independent regulation of legal profession in 1999. Writing in the Scotsman newspaper in September 1999, the Scottish Consumer Council’s Sarah O’Neill went some way to explaining the conclusions of the SCC’s “Complaints About Solicitors” report, going onto recommend the Scottish Parliament’s then Justice & Home Affairs Committee study the issue, saying : “The SCC report concluded that there must be an open debate about the merits of establishing an independent complaints-handling body. We therefore recommend that the Scottish Parliament should review the current procedure with a view to establishing an independent body to deal with complaints about solicitors in Scotland. We would encourage the Justice and Home Affairs Parliamentary Committee to find time to examine this issue and reach a balanced conclusion. The Scottish Executive has told us it has no plans at present to change the current system.”

Ms O’Neill went onto say : “We would not recommend a particular model for an independent complaints-handling body. The Scottish Parliament should carefully consider all possible options, having carried out a thorough review of the current system, before making any firm decisions. Whatever scheme is introduced, however, it is essential that it is seen to be transparent, fair and above all, independent.”

The Scottish Consumer Council’s 1999 report “Complaints About Solicitors” stated in its conclusion : “This report provides considerable evidence of consumer dissatisfaction with the way in which complaints against solicitors are presently handled in Scotland, both by solicitors and by the Law Society. We believe that there is an urgent need for both to adopt a more client-oriented approach to dealing with complaints. Solicitors must embrace the concept of client care, which would help to reduce complaints, while at the same time ensuring a better deal for clients. The Law Society’s procedure contains many major flaws, and we have suggested a number of ways in which these could be remedied. Were these changes to be carried out, this would go some way towards improving the lot of consumers who complain about solicitors.”

The SCC report continued : “However, such changes would not go far enough. It is essential that complaints are dealt with by a body which is seen to be independent and impartial. Those who complain must be able to feel that their complaint has been fairly dealt with. It is clear that the fundamental root of the problem from the consumer’s point of view is that the Law Society is seen as being on the side of the solicitor. The only effective solution to the problem is the establishment of an independent review body to deal with complaints against solicitors in Scotland”

An earlier research project commissioned by the SLCC in 2009 & carried out by the University of Manchester’s Law School in to the Law Society of Scotland’s Master Insurance Policy revealed clients had committed suicide because of the way they had been treated over claims made against negligent or corrupt solicitors. Diary of Injustice reported on the Master Policy research revelations here : Suicides, illness, broken families and ruined clients reveal true cost of Law Society’s Master Policy which ‘allows solicitors to sleep at night’

However, the SLCC has steadfastly refused to monitor individual claims to the Master Policy in spite of being asked by members of the public to do so, and no detectable changes have been made to how the SLCC deals with complaints made against negligent solicitors.

The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission has not released any further statements on the progress of the survey or any response to criticisms it is avoiding Freedom of Information laws by refusing to look at complaints data gathered by it’s contract researchers.

Meanwhile in England & Wales, the Legal Ombudsman is pressing ahead with full identification of solicitors & law firms who fail their clients, reported by Diary of Injustice in April, here : Clients of Scots solicitors miss out on ‘right to know’ as UK Legal Ombudsman moves to name & shame ‘crooked lawyers’ in England & Wales

As of 1 April 2012 the Legal Ombudsman began collating names of lawyers and law firms subject to complaints resolved by an ombudsman’s decision. Any data collected will be made publicly available by the Legal Ombudsman at the end of July 2012 and then subsequently every quarter.

 

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