President's report 2015
Much of our work during the past year focused on responding to the many changes taking place in the solicitors’ profession and the justice system. Challenges and opportunities arose from reductions in public spending, legislative reform and shifts in the marketplace. The number of Scottish solicitors continued to rise and now exceeds 11,300, a majority of which are female for the first time.
In response to changes in the fast-moving legal sector - particularly significant as we approach the Scottish parliamentary elections - the Society developed proposals to improve the legislative framework around the Society and the profession. It is hoped new legislation will be brought forward to allow solicitors to better meet the expectations of clients, respond to advances in technology and facilitate the evolution of new business structures. At the Society, we aim to expand the range of services we offer to members and open up associate forms of membership to other legal professionals.
To continue to deliver a world-class service in Scotland and beyond, the legal profession and marketplace also require a modern, transparent and flexible system of regulation. During the year, the Society decided not to take forward a scheme of principles and outcomes focused regulation but to progress proposals around entity regulation. The results of a detailed consultation will feature in our plans for legislative change. In other regulatory work, we adopted the recommendations of both the independent Bowen review of consumer protections and the external review of the Guarantee Fund, which was renamed the Client Protection Fund.
Constitutional issues remained prominent throughout the year, particularly during the general election campaign, with the Society taking an active role in helping to move the debate forward, making a submission to the Smith Commission and responding to a number of parliamentary proposals and discussions.
The Society continued to promote the need for a sustainable system of legal aid, publishing a recommendations paper, followed by sessions at the Legal Aid Conference and an event at the Scottish Parliament. We also campaigned to improve access to justice – in areas such as online dispute resolution, tribunal fees and during the courts reform programme – and reviewed potential barriers to becoming a solicitor, identifying areas where the Society could help to ensure the profession is open to all on merit, irrespective of their economic or social background. The continued success and expansion of our innovative Street Law programme in 2014/15 has been instrumental in this. The Society also developed plans for a Legal Education Trust to support and mentor aspiring Scottish solicitors from areas of deprivation. The trust was stablished in early 2016.
The Society’s Council members, and all those who sit on our committees and working groups, once again deserve huge credit for their diligent work on behalf of the profession and the public.
Chief Executive’s report
The many developments taking place in the legal sector require solicitors to adapt and innovate. Equally, the Society must change - and is changing - to meet the needs of our members and the public they serve.
Although completed a matter of days after the end of our reporting year, the most obvious physical change at the Society was the move from our headquarters of 47 years at Drumsheugh Gardens to new, modern premises at Atria One on Morrison Street in Edinburgh. While undoubtedly the end of an era, the relocation is providing a better working environment for our staff, as well as the members and volunteers who contribute so much to the work of the Society.
The move marks the start of an exciting time for us. During 2015, we developed a new five-year strategy that aims for the Society to be a world-class professional body, leading legal excellence and delivering for all those who rely on us and the services we provide. The strategy is recognition that we should be bolder, more ambitious and even more effective if we are to meet the challenges of a changing legal services market.
While impacting on all areas of our work, key features of the strategy include exploring the option of establishing new levels of membership to the Society and driving up our non-subscription income. Last year, we achieved our income forecast - as well as delivering three new commercial partnerships and two new services to members. We plan to do more of this in the years ahead.
Embracing new technology is at the heart of our plans for continued progress. Renewal of practising certificates for 2015/16 was carried out entirely online, making the process quicker and easier for our members. Although short of the ambitious target we set at the start, we also succeeded in issuing around 6,500 Smartcards to our members, representing 58% of those who hold practising certificates. These cards, which facilitate the use of secure digital signatures, have been issued throughout Scotland, in England and in 16 countries overseas.
To ensure members and the public can engage effectively with us and get the information they need, we developed and expanded the information available on our website and redeveloped our Find A Solicitor tool. Those improvements were complemented by the establishment of a new public communications team to deal with general enquiries and correspondence. The team dealt with an average of 966 queries a month, while also gathering valuable information about trends among those who use legal services.
As ever, a big thanks to the Society’s staff for their hard work and commitment during such a busy year.