Council reports 2012

Council Meeting, 14 December 2012

Court reform

Reform of Scotland’s courts must form part of an integrated strategy and protect access to justice, the Council heard.

Council members discussed proposals in the Scottish Court Service consultation paper, Shaping Scotland’s Court Services, which include possible court closures.

The Convener of the Access to Justice Committee, Stuart Naismith, explained that feedback on the consultation had been received from the profession.

One key issue, he said, was whether court closures would take place in urban or rural areas.

Other concerns raised during the Council debate included the level of savings that would be achieved and the impact on the effective operation of the court system.

Society President Austin Lafferty highlighted the connection with legal aid and access to justice issues, stressing that an integrated approach should be taken.

The Society’s formal response will be submitted by 21 December.


Legal aid and access to justice

The solicitors’ profession remains united over the issue of proposed cuts to the legal aid budget, the Council was told.

Council members were given an update on discussions with the Scottish Government, local faculties and others over proposals in the Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament.

Earlier this month, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, announced that he was prepared to change the threshold at which people would start to pay a contribution to their criminal legal aid, increasing it from £68 disposable income a week to £82.

However, solicitors would still be required to collect those contributions, which could cause difficulties and result in carrying out work for no payment.

The Society’s President, Austin Lafferty, said a meeting with Mr MacAskill, had failed to ease the concerns of the profession.

During a debate among Council members it was pointed out that the principal of fairness was at the heart of access to justice and the rule of law.

Mr Lafferty added that the Society would continue to argue for a fair system of legal aid.


President and vice president

The Society’s President and Vice President for 2013/14 were formally elected by the Council.

The current Vice President, Bruce Beveridge, will step up to the role of President. The current Guarantee Fund Sub-Committee Convener, Alistair Morris, will take up the position of next year’s Vice President.

Both were congratulated by the current President, Austin Lafferty. They begin their terms of office in May 2013.

The co-option of two new solicitor Council members was also agreed. Moira MacMillan, of Glasgow Caledonian University, will represent the academic sector and Sola Paterson-Marke, of DLA Piper, will represent newly qualified solicitors.

Council members agreed that Liam McCabe, Director of Finance at the University of Stirling, will take up the position of Convener of the Society’s Audit Committee from the beginning of next month, replacing Professor Stewart Hamilton.

Council Meeting, 23 November 2012

Draft regulatory scheme

The Society’s draft regulatory scheme to licence and regulate licensed providers under the 2010 Act was approved by the Council and will be submitted to the Scottish Government.

If approved by the government, the Lord President and the Office of Fair Trading, the Society could be authorised as an approved regulator and start to receive formal applications from the first licensed providers of legal services in the spring.

Philip Yelland, Director of Regulation, said agreeing the draft scheme was an "important staging post" on the way to the Society regulating new legal services providers.

He added that, in response to a debate at last month’s Council meeting, the level of investment that would trigger a fit and proper person test had been reduced from 10% to 0.5%.

The meeting also heard that the Society had received up to 50 enquires about applying for LP status from a wide range of businesses. Most were Scottish law firms, including a number of small practices

The Society’s president, Austin Lafferty, paid tribute to the huge amount of work carried out by those working on the project.


Legal aid and access to justice

Proposed cuts to the legal aid budget would damage access to justice for the most needy in Society, the Council heard.

A lengthy debate on legal aid and access to justice focused on Scottish Government plans to reduce the legal aid budget by £25m to £132m by 2014/15, highlighting those who would suffer most if the cuts went ahead.

A report before the Council said: "The scale of the challenge ahead will be vast."

Council members said efforts to safeguard access to justice and protect solicitors’ interests must remain constructive, persuasive and persistent.

Edinburgh member Eilidh Wiseman added that opposing the cuts presented an "opportunity for the profession to be unified".

Earlier this month, Society president Austin Lafferty and Chief Executive Lorna Jack joined solicitors in a protest outside the Scottish Parliament over some aspects of the legislation that introduces contributions in criminal legal aid.

Particular concerns include the threshold at which contributions would be payable and the system for collecting contributions, which would become the responsibility of individual solicitors.


President and vice president

Society Vice President Bruce Beveridge will step up to the role of President in 2013/14 after standing unopposed.

The current Guarantee Fund Sub-Committee Convener, Alistair Morris, will take up the position of nest year’s Vice President. He was the sole nominee for the post. Both begin their terms of office in May 2013.

Two new members were welcomed onto the Council: Lynda Towers, Solicitor to the Scottish Parliament and Chair of the Society’s In-House Lawyers’ Group Committee; and, Dumfries solicitor Paul Matthews, representing Dumfries, Kirkcudbright and Stranraer.

Council Meeting, 25 October 2012

Draft regulatory regime

The proposed scheme to allow the Society to regulate new legal services providers was debated by the Council.

In a wide-ranging discussion, members considered the:

• challenge of developing rules for entities – licensed legal services providers (LPs) – rather than individuals

• fit and proper test for investors in LPs

• role of the Guarantee Fund and Master Policy in the reformed marketplace

• resources available for regulating LPs

• Society’s dual representative and regulatory role under the new system

Much of the debate focused on the percentage stake in a LP that should require a non-solicitor investor to undergo a fit and proper person test. Under the Legal Services (Scotland) Act, no such test is necessary until an investor holds more than 10% in a LP.

However, some Council members said a test should be triggered when an investor takes a considerably smaller stake.

It was argued that a more rigorous test was needed to protect the public as well as the reputation of the solicitors’ profession and the Society.

The Society’s Director of Regulation, Philip Yelland, said the feedback would be considered by the working group developing the scheme and then brought back to the Council next month.

He added that the profession would be kept informed. The final scheme will be submitted to the Scottish Government to consider the Society as an approved regulator.

President Austin Lafferty paid tribute to the staff working on such a "huge exercise".


Society pension scheme

The Society should continue to make phased contributions to the deficit on its previous pension scheme rather than pursue a full buy-out, Council members agreed.

The scheme trustees had requested that the Council consider a buy-out, which would involve an insurer taking on the scheme’s pension obligations.

However, a report before Council members explained that this was a costly option.

It said: "The cash flow impact of a buy-out, compared with continuing to manage the scheme in accordance with the recovery plan, is unacceptably severe.

"The Society would have to borrow a significant sum to finance the buy-out and still provide a reasonable level of working capital. Market conditions are particularly disadvantageous at present."

It was agreed that, in the meantime, the Society will continue to manage the deficit and work closely with the scheme trustees on a risk reduction strategy.

A buy-out will still be considered in the future when conditions are more favourable.


Electronic voting

Electronic voting for the election of the Society’s president and vice president will be possible following a change to the standing orders.

Council members agreed the amendment to ensure the standing orders are in line with the Society’s constitution, which was altered at last month’s special general meeting.

The election of the vice president for 2013/14, which begins on 30 November, will now use an electronic ballot system. Council members can access the secure section of the Society’s website with their logins and passwords.

Electronic voting was successfully piloted at last month’s Board elections, the Council heard.


Council members

Dumfries solicitor Paul Matthews is to join the Council as the representative for the constituency of Dumfries, Kirkcudbright and Stranraer, it was announced.

Lynda Towers, solicitor at the Scottish Parliament and incoming Chair of the In-House Lawyers’ Group (ILG), will also join the Council for a three-year term after her co-option was agreed.

Society President Austin Lafferty paid tribute to the outgoing ILG Chair Janet Hood, saying she had given "eminent, dedicated and brilliant service over all these many years".

Council Meeting, 17 August 2012

Budget and PC

Careful budgeting and good management of the Society’s finances will allow a freeze in the practising certificate fee for the third successive year, the Council heard.

Solicitors will vote at next month’s special general meeting on the proposed PC subscription of £550, which is intended to limit financial pressure on the profession in a challenging economic environment.

During a discussion on the Society’s 2012/13 budget, the Council fixed other solicitors’ fees, including a £5 increase in the cost of remaining on the roll of solicitors to £75, the first rise in the retention fee since 2007.

The accounts fee, which is levied on principals to fund the financial compliance and interventions teams, will increase by £39 to £380. The Guarantee Fund subscription was set at £200, a decrease of £39. The combined cost of the accounts and Guarantee Fund subscription therefore remains unchanged.

The increase in the accounts fee will boost funding for the financial compliance team and allow a shorter inspection cycle.

The fees for non-practising membership and the incidental financial business regime will remain unchanged.

Professor Stewart Hamilton, Convener of the Audit Committee, said significant improvements had been made to the budget process in the past year.

The agenda for the SGM on 18 September and the Society’s corporate plan for 2012/13 were also agreed by the Council.

The SGM agenda includes a proposal for a minor constitutional amendment that would end the current requirement to conduct the annual elections of president and vice president by postal ballot, allowing new technology to save time and money.


Code of conduct for Council and committee members

A new code of conduct for Council and committee members and an associated complaints handling process were agreed at today’s meeting.

A number of provisions in the code were discussed, including some of the wording in the section on fairness and impartiality and also in the complaints process.

Minor changes were made and the code and complaints process were approved. They will apply to current and new members of the Council, committees and working parties.

Director of Communications Kevin Lang thanked Council members for their feedback during development of the documents.


Court structures

The Society’s response to a discussion on reforming Scotland’s court structures, which includes the possibility of closures, was approved by Council members.

A debate heard of the need to balance the issue of public finances with access to justice and the deteriorating condition of some courts.

Sheriff courts that remained open would have to absorb capacity both from any that closed and also from the higher courts, it was pointed out.

The main reform proposals in the Scottish Court Service dialogue paper, Shaping Scotland’s Court Services, include:

• reducing the High Court circuit, possibly to three or six locations

• the introduction of summary sheriffs to hear summary crime and some civil cases

• the closure of court buildings where more than one exists in a town or city

• the closure of courts with insufficient business or another court within reasonable travel distance

The Society will also respond to a full consultation paper, which is due to be issued in the autumn.


The Society’s Board

The Society’s Board is to reduce in size to increase its effectiveness, the Council agreed.

The decision to reduce the number of members from 11 to nine is in line with a previous agreement that the Council itself should be smaller.

A report before members explained that the Board, which was established three years ago as a committee of the Council, had reviewed its own performance.

The report added: "Board members discussed and then agreed that the Board would be more effective if it was smaller. They also felt that a Board of 11 might have been right when the Council was larger but that a smaller Board is more appropriate as we head towards a smaller Council."

Council members supported the principle of a smaller Board but debated whether the past president should be a full member or an observer.

It was agreed that membership of the three supra-conveners – of regulation, representation and registration – would be discontinued as the roles have not developed as expected. However, the past president, who provides valuable experience, will continue to sit on the Board.

It will now consist of the president, vice president, past president and treasurer along with five elected Council members. Nomination forms for the elected positions will be sent out next week, to be returned by 31 August.

The role and remit of the new Constitution Working Party was also considered. The Convener, Sheekha Saha, will choose the membership of the group.


Jackie McRae

The President, Austin Lafferty, paid tribute to the commitment of outgoing Council member Jackie McRae, who represented new lawyers.

He said she brought considerable experience as a solicitor and from her previous career in social work to the Society’s education and training work.

She said it had been a privilege to serve on the Council and thanked the Society staff for their hard work on behalf of the profession during her three-year term.

Council Meeting, 29 June 2012

Court structure

Access to justice must be protected under proposals to reform Scotland’s court structures, potentially including some closures, Council members heard.

A lengthy debate considered key aspects of the Scottish Court Service (SCS) dialogue paper, Shaping Scotland’s Court Services.

The main reform proposals include:

• reducing the High Court circuit, possibly to three or six locations

• the introduction of summary sheriffs to hear summary crime and some civil cases

• the closure of court buildings where more than one exists in a town or city

• the closure of courts with insufficient business or another court within reasonable travel distance

Council members raised concerns that the changes were cost driven and could impact on access to justice, particularly in rural areas such as the Highlands and Islands.

They could cause difficulties for victims of crime, witnesses and others involved in court cases, it was argued.

However, there was also a recognition that modernisation of the court system, some of which has been in place for hundreds of years, was inevitable.

The Society is preparing a response to the proposals. SCS is expected to issue a formal consultation in September.


Code of conduct for Council and committee members

A draft code of conduct for Council and committee members and a process for dealing with alleged breaches, were considered at today’s meeting.

A paper before Council members highlighted the current lack of a consistent process for handling complaints about members in relation to their work with the Society.

It added: "As part of the project to change the Society’s constitution and improve our governance arrangements, there has been a longstanding intention to establish a new code of conduct for Council members."

Final drafts of the documents will be brought back to the Council in August.


Electronic voting for office bearers

Proposals to allow electronic voting for the posts of Society president and vice president will be put to members, it was agreed.

The change requires a minor amendment to the Society’s constitution, which will be considered at the special general meeting in September. Additional changes would also be made to the standing orders.

Lorna Jack, the Chief Executive, said the limited amendment was a "positive step" in a process of incremental change.

A report before the Council said it would test the benefits of modernising voting procedures.

It was also agreed that Sheekha Saha would take over convenership of the Constitution Working Party from Vice President Bruce Beveridge.


Co-opted Council seats

Following the recent decision to reduce the number of co-opted seats on the Council to six, a debate took place on how best to use those places.

Registrar David Cullen explained that the "custom and practice" of co-opting members had developed to ensure those with special experience sat the Council.

No groups are specified for co-option. However, the importance of representing sectors such as new lawyers, in-house lawyers, banking and finance, academia and the Scottish Government was highlighted.

It was agreed that the Constitution Working Party would consider the issue in more detail.


Oliver Adair

Outgoing Council member Oliver Adair was described as a champion of legal aid and access to justice.

Paying tribute to his achievements, President Austin Lafferty said the third-longest standing Council member "brought his considerable skills to bear" particularly in the fields of criminal law and legal aid during his 16-year term.

He added: "Oliver is deeply committed to the principle of legal aid given his fundamental belief in the principle of access to justice for all.

"This is a principle which he believes should be based on fairness as well as the Society’s responsibility to look after those individuals who, for whatever reason, need the help and advice of a solicitor to protect their basic human rights.

"Throughout Oliver’s service as a Council and committee member he has always led with a good head and a good heart."

Oliver served on a number of committees and was Convener of both the Criminal Law Committee and Legal Aid Solicitors’ Committee, also chairing the Criminal Legal Aid Negotiating Team Committee.

Council Meeting, 31 May 2012

President and vice president

Glasgow solicitor Austin Lafferty took up the post of Society President at today’s Council meeting, with Bruce Beveridge becoming Vice President.

Cameron Ritchie, whose presidency came to an end after chairing the annual general meeting earlier in the day, said it had been a "great pleasure and a great privilege" to lead the Society during an exciting and challenging year.

He said Austin had all the skills needed to take the Society and the profession forward. The well-known legal figure runs his own multi-branch law firm in and around Glasgow. He has been a member of the Council for six years.

Bruce, former Scottish Government solicitor and recently appointed Chair of Scottish Land and Estates' Centre for Rural Development, was described as a "dynamic" Vice President.

The new President said Cameron Ritchie’s term of office had been one of "distinction and achievement".

Tribute was also paid on the twentieth anniversary of Cupar representative Alistair Morris joining the Council. He is the longest serving member of the ruling body. On standing down from the Council, its second longest serving member, Oliver Adair, was described as having served his constituencies and the profession as a whole with distinction.

A number of new members were welcomed onto the Council: Nyree Conway, Linlithgow; Janet Hood, Dundee; John Mulholland, Stirling, Falkirk and Alloa; David Preston, Campbeltown, Dunoon, Oban, Rothesay and Fort William; Neil Ross, Elgin and Nairn; and, Ken Swinton, Dundee.


Trainee salaries

The recommended salary rates for trainees will go up by 1.5%, the Council agreed.

The increase follows a decision last month that all trainee solicitors must be paid at least the national minimum wage.

From tomorrow, recommended remuneration will rise from £15,965 to £16,200 for first-year trainees and £19,107 to £19,400 for second-year trainees.

The increase reflects the current annual wage rise for workers across the UK. Rates were frozen last year due to the economic downturn.

A report before Council members said: "There is a danger in continuing to freeze the recommended rate as, in the long-term, this will lead to a significant jump at some stage. It was considered that incremental rates were preferable."

The report added that the majority of trainees were paid at or above the recommended rates.


In-house lawyers

Changes to the way Scotland’s in-house solicitors are supported and represented by the Society have moved a step closer, Council members heard.

An update report on implementing the findings of a review of support for in-house lawyers said a working party was making good progress.

The working party Convener, David Newton, said it was minded to recommend to the Council that an In-House Lawyers Committee be established under the Society’s normal governance arrangements.

He added that further work was needed before a more detailed paper could be brought to the Council.

A debate among Council members heard that the "hearts and minds" of the members of the current In-House Lawyers’ Group must remain central to discussions.

Council Meeting, 27 April 2012

Trainee salaries

All trainee solicitors must be paid at least the national minimum wage, the Council agreed.

The aim of the new policy is to ensure trainees are not exploited and training firms do not potentially act unlawfully.

The Society will continue to encourage firms to pay a recommended rate of £15,965 for first-year trainees and £19,107 for second-year trainees. No future traineeship contracts will be registered by the Society if payment is below the national minimum wage, currently £6.08 an hour.

Trainees’ entitlement to the minimum wage was backed by a legal opinion obtained by the Society. The Council’s decision will not affect traineeships already approved.

The policy was adopted following a lengthy debate among Council members. They heard that an increasing number of trainees had made enquiries about unpaid traineeships, with the Society aware of 13 unremunerated trainees.

Jackie McRae, the Council member who represents new lawyers, stressed that many talented and hard-working people faced difficulties obtaining traineeships, adding that trainees who did find places contributed to the commercial success of firms.

It was also pointed out that training firms, which might be struggling in the current economic environment, invested considerable effort in developing trainees.

The Society’s Education and Training Committee was tasked with working out the detail of how the changes will be implemented


Constitution

Solicitors will vote at the Society’s annual general meeting on reducing the size of the Council by a quarter.

The final amendments to go to next month’s AGM were agreed by Council members at today’s meeting. They propose reducing the Council from 62 members to 46. Most members would continue to represent geographical constituencies, with others representing specific sectors and up to nine lay members.

Bruce Beveridge, vice president elect and convener of the Society’s constitution working group, said the changes took into account views expressed during consultation with the membership.

He added that the working group would continue to consider future reform options.

The possible effects of reducing the size of the Council further were also debated, with concerns raised that such a move would risk damaging the effective representation of members.

A full evaluation and consultation with members would also be needed before any further changes were considered, it was argued.


Annual general meeting

Next month’s AGM will consider the benefits of amending the Society’s conflict of interest rules.

The Council said it is minded to amend the rules that allow a solicitor to represent both the buyer and the lender in a property transaction, favouring separate representation. The issue was raised due to concerns about lenders restricting their solicitor panels.

A working party is to be set up to develop standardised practice and procedures and then report to the special general meeting in September with recommendations.

The decision was made during a discussion on the AGM agenda. The AGM will also vote on motions proposing a reduction in the size of the Council and whether to approve draft practice rules. The Society’s accounts for 2011 will be put to the meeting.


Retiring Council members

President Cameron Ritchie paid tribute to five retiring members of the Council.

Treasurer David McClements, the longest serving of the five – having been on the Council since 2001 – was praised for "steering us through some fairly rough waters calmly and in control" and ensuring the Society’s finances are on a sound footing.

Ian Bryce, the member for Linlithgow, was described as an excellent Council member who put in an "enormous" amount of work on the Criminal Legal Aid Negotiating Team and as a Board member.

Sole practitioner Ian Cruickshank, a long-standing member for Elgin and Nairn, made a considerable contribution, particularly to the Society’s regulatory work.

Dundee representative Scott Milne was active in work related to the Guarantee Fund, with the president expressing appreciation of his service.

John Hall, also representing Dundee, was described as an active Council member for his constituents, particularly in the area of legal aid work.

David McClements said: "It’s been a privilege to serve on the Council and the committees with so many individuals who are committed to the legal profession in Scotland."

Council Meeting, 30 March 2012

Constitution

Proposals to reduce the size of the Society’s ruling Council will be put to solicitors at the annual general meeting in May.

The limited governance reform was backed by Council members in place of previous plans to hold a vote of the membership on a comprehensively redrafted constitution. The decision follows a six-week consultation with members.

Under the proposals, the Council would comprise 30 solicitors elected by constituency, up to seven co-opted solicitor members and nine non-solicitor members. A smaller Council was supported during the consultation process.

Bruce Beveridge, vice president elect and convener of the Society’s constitution working group, said it became clear during the consultation process that there were reservations about adopting a new constitution at this time.

The President, Cameron Ritchie, said the review of the constitution had been a worthwhile process, which raised awareness of the Society’s governance rules.

He added that the Society should also look at modernising voting procedures, which would be particularly beneficial to members in remote areas.


In-house lawyers

A working group is to be set up to take forward plans to change the way Scotland’s in-house solicitors are supported and represented by the Society.

The decision followed a lengthy debate about how best to represent in-house lawyers. It was agreed that further consideration of 11 recommendations contained in a review of support services was needed. The working group will be headed by Council member David Newton.

After the meeting, he paid tribute to the work of the current In-House Lawyers’ Group (ILG), adding that the aim was to build on ILG’s "enormous success and strengths".

Janet Hood, head of the ILG, said she looked forward to working with the new group in developing the way forward.

One of the key issues debated by Council members was whether ILG should become a committee of the Council or retain its current basic structure.


Esto Law

The findings of a review of the firm Esto Law Ltd were discussed by Council members.

They heard that the Society’s President, Cameron Ritchie, and Vice President, Austin Lafferty, had found no evidence to support accusations made against the former members of the Society's Criminal Legal Aid Negotiating Team who planned to set up Esto, which was intended to offer police station advice cover to solicitors.

Past President Jamie Millar paid tribute to the "tremendous" effort and commitment of the members of the negotiating team.

Council Meeting, 27 January 2012

Constitution

A redrafted constitution to be put to members during a five-week consultation was agreed by the Council. Introducing the document, vice president-elect Bruce Beveridge, said it was “effectively an advanced work in progress” as it would now receive input from members.

Council members discussed a number of issues in the redrafted version of the constitution, including the rights of lay members, the role of the Nominations Committee and the paramount position of the Council.

The consultation will begin on 6 February. A final version of the constitution will then be considered again by the Council before final approval is sought from the membership at the Society’s annual general meeting in May.


Annual accounts

Society Treasurer David McClements highlighted a number of key figures in the Society’s 2011 accounts.

Presenting the accounts to Council members, he pointed out that:

  • income from membership fees and subscriptions rose
  • additional income was generated by the Society, for instance through events and publications
  • progress was made with the pension fund liability

The Guarantee Fund accounts were also described as positive.

The accounts were agreed by the Council and will go to the membership for approval at the AGM.


Former President John McNeil

Tribute was paid to former Society president John McNeil, who died following a short illness, as the longest-serving committee member in the Society’s history.

Council members heard that he held the presidency in 1986 and 1987, during a period of major change for the profession. He also sat on the Conveyancing Committee for 48 years, which was believed to be a record, including a period as convener.

Current President Cameron Ritchie said Mr McNeil was “one of the great members of the Society”, describing him as a man of sharp intellect, with a good sense of humour and no-nonsense attitude. He passed sincere condolences to Mr McNeil’s family.

A property lawyer, Mr McNeil was a senior partner at Edinburgh firm Morton Fraser. He was appointed a CBE for services to the legal profession.