Legal aid and access to justice
The Society’s president and vice president are to lead a full review of how the organisation carries out its work on criminal legal aid.
The president presented the proposed work plan, which was approved by Council and will involve gathering feedback from faculties and bar associations on possible models for negotiating on behalf of criminal legal aid solicitors.
A lengthy debate focused on the recent issues over measures in the Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance Bill to introduce contributions to criminal legal aid.
Tribute was paid to the hard work of the Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Negotiating Team, which had secured a number of key concessions from the Scottish Government before legislation was passed by the Scottish Parliament.
However, the decision to accept amendments to the legislation – while remaining opposed to the principle that solicitors should collect contributions – had caused a number of members to raise concerns and criticise the Society for not properly representing members’ views. The handling of the process and the effect on the reputation of the Society were questioned by some Council members.
The President, Austin Lafferty, said the Society fully supported the work of the negotiators and congratulated them on a “job well done” in securing the best package possible.
However, given that some faculties had raised concerns, he proposed a “genuinely open debate” to establish how members believed negotiations should be carried out and if new models for the negotiating team or an equivalent body should be considered. The results of the discussions will be reported back to the Council.
He stressed that separate plans to revise the structure of the civil and criminal legal aid teams, also before the Council, were not connected to recent events.
Under the proposals, which were approved, a joint Legal Aid Committee was set up, co-convened by Mark Thorley (civil) and Ian Moir (criminal), with the existing teams continuing to conduct day-to-day work.
A proposal to end the exemption which allows for a solicitor to act for both borrower and lender in conveyancing transactions will be put to solicitors for discussion at the Society’s annual general meeting in March.
The move was agreed following discussions on a report prepared by the Separate Representation Working Party.
The report put forward a number of options for change, though recommended that the Society’s rules should be amended to introduce mandatory separate representation of the parties in all standard security transactions, commercial and residential. One member of the group dissented from that view.
During a debate, concerns were raised that the change could increase costs for borrowers. It was also argued that the quality of advice could improve.
Council members were urged to engage with their constituents on the issue before the matter is put to the AGM.
Any change in the Society’s rules would be considered at a special general meeting in the autumn.
Scotland’s constitutional future
The Society should play its part in ensuring the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future is reasoned and well informed, Council members heard.
A paper before the Council set out ways the Society could contribute constructively to discussions.
It said: “As the professional body of Scottish solicitors, the Law Society of Scotland has access to significant knowledge and expertise on constitutional and other legal areas.
“We know from research carried out across the political parties that the Society is a highly respected and much valued organisation.
“We therefore have much to offer the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future and a reputation which means that contribution is likely to be listened to.
“Equally, we are recognised as being neutral in a party political sense. We therefore have a key opportunity to influence a significant debate within Scotland.”
The need to remain neutral and consider the consequences of both a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’ vote were stressed. The views of the solicitors’ profession must also be properly considered, it was argued.
Judicial Factor arrangements
The scope and terms of an internal review of how the Society manages cases involving Judicial Factors were approved by Council members.
It was agreed to set up a review following the high-profile appointment of a Judicial Factor due to concerns about the accounting records of law firm Ross Harper last year. The firm later ceased trading.
Given the scale and high-profile nature of the appointment, it was considered good practice to examine any lessons that could be learned from the process. The Society is also having to manage a larger number of Judicial Factor cases than has historically been the norm.
The next steps for the review will be discussed at the March Council meeting.
Elections are due to take place for a number of Council constituencies around the country.
Ballots will be held for five seats in Glasgow & Strathkelvin, two in Greenock, Kilmarnock & Paisley, two in Cupar, Dunfermline & Kirkcaldy and one in Perth.
The election notice will appear in the March Journal and e-bulletin, with the deadline for nomination papers on 16 April. The election date is 8 May.
Tribute was paid to two outgoing Council members.
Professor Kay Hampton, one of the Society’s first lay members, stepped down after her appointment to the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal panel.
The recently appointed Convener of the Audit Committee, Liam McCabe, who is Director of Finance at the University of Stirling, will fill the vacancy left by Professor Hampton.
Peter Matthews, former Dumfries, Kirkcudbright and Stranraer representative, also stood down.
New Council members Moira MacMillan, of Glasgow Caledonian University, representing the academic sector, and Sola Paterson-Marke, of DLA Piper, representing newly qualified solicitors, were welcomed to the meeting.