Council reports 2013

Council Meeting, 13 December 2013

President and vice president

The Society’s longest serving Council member and current Vice President, Alistair Morris, was formally elected as next year’s President.

Christine McLintock, former general counsel for Pinsent Masons, will take up the post of Vice President in 2014/15.

The current President, Bruce Beveridge, announced the results to Council members, adding that he was “delighted” for those taking up their new positions.

Alistair Morris, Chief Executive of Pagan Osborne, who joined the Council in 1992, was the sole nomination for President.

In the election for the vice presidency, Christine McLintock, who represents the constituency of Edinburgh and is the Convener of the Education and Training (Policy) Committee, polled the highest number of votes among Council members (25).

She will be the second female to hold the post, ten years after Caroline Flanagan.

She thanked Council members for their support and said she was “absolutely thrilled” at the result.

The election was contested by David Newton (10 votes), who represents the constituency of Dumbarton, and Aberdeen Council member Jane MacEachran (8).

Bruce Beveridge later added: "Christine has shown great ability, skill and judgment.  Working with the new president, Alistair Morris, the Society will have a first class team of office bearers at the helm from next May.

"I also want to thank David Newton and Jane MacEachran, two excellent candidates who ensured there was a spirited contest.  Both of them make an invaluable contribution to the Society and I'm looking forward to benefiting from their continued involvement on Council and our committees."


Licensed provider scheme

Plans for the Society to be approved as a regulator of new business structures should be taken forward as a priority, the Council heard.

The Society is currently working on a detailed draft regulatory scheme to submit to the Scottish Government.

If the scheme is approved, the Society would be able to regulate licensed legal services providers, which are permitted under the Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010.

Philip Yelland, Director of Regulation, said: “We want to move forward as quickly as possible to get our scheme back in to the government.”

The Society submitted its initial draft regulatory scheme a year ago but the Scottish Government questioned whether it met the requirements of the 2010 Act.

The Society has since worked on putting together a more detailed scheme. To ensure it can be submitted as quickly as possible, the Council agreed that the authority to approve the revised model should be delegated to the office bearers.

A project plan is being put in place and progress reports will continue to be given to the Board and the Council.


Legal aid

Contracting and contributions were highlighted during a discussion on the latest legal aid developments.

Council members heard that the Society has published detailed research on contracting in criminal legal aid in advance of the Scottish Government’s consultation on the issue, which could start later this month.

Through case studies, the research looks at procurement processes, equality and competition in different markets around the world. It is the second major contracting research project carried out by the Society.

The Council was also reminded that the new system of contributions in criminal legal aid is due to be implemented early next year, with a suggestion that the Society could do more to explain the changes that will take place.

Neil Stevenson, Director of Representation and Professional Support, said the Society was keen to engage with legal aid solicitors and get their feedback on reforms to the system.

Council Meeting, 29 November 2013

Fair access to the profession

A wide-ranging programme for improving fair access to the solicitors’ profession is to be taken forward by the Society.

Proposals for removing potential barriers to entering the profession, particularly for those from less privileged backgrounds, were contained in a draft report before Council members.

An assessment of the costs and resources required to implement the measures will now be carried out. A further paper will be brought to the Council early next year and then published.

The President, Bruce Beveridge, described Fair Access to the Legal Profession as an “exceptionally comprehensive report”, which involved meeting a wide range of organisations and spanned each stage of education and training from school through to newly qualified solicitors.

The report stressed that many barriers to fair access are outwith the control of the Society and focused on the comparatively low levels of individuals from lower socio-economic groups who commence the LLB.

It added that, in other areas, the Society is well-placed to act. The maintenance of high professional standards and the importance of protecting the public were also highlighted.

Council members focused on funding for the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice and shortages in traineeships. Other issues discussed included alternative routes to qualification, the availability of other sources of financial support for law students and encouraging entry to the legal aid sector.

Christine McLintock, Convener of the Education and Training (Policy) Committee, said: “This takes us a long way forward with an analysis of this very complex issue.”

The initial review of the issue was prompted by recommendations from the Campaign for Fair Access to the Legal Profession.


Appearance of counsel without an agent

Discussions are under way to develop a protocol for proposing rules and rulings that impact on members of both the Society and the Faculty of Advocates, the Council heard.

The talks are currently taking place between the Society’s President and the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates and, if appropriate, could later involve the Lord President.

The discussions were prompted by the ruling of the Dean on counsel appearing without an agent in civil litigation, which came into force in September.

Concerns were raised, and communicated to the Dean, at the lack of consultation before the ruling was made. The Society has since investigated the impact of the ruling on members and the public.

A report before the Council said the new protocol could apply “in the event of new procedural rules and or rulings being proposed by either entity which will impact on Faculty and Society members”.

The development of guidance for the profession is under consideration by the Society.


Presidential nominations

The Society’s Vice President, Alistair Morris, was the sole nomination for the position of President in 2014/15.

A three-way contest for next year’s vice presidency will take place between Council members Christine McLintock, Jane MacEachran and David Newton.

Alistair Morris, Chief Executive of Pagan Osborne, joined the Council in 1992 and is now its longest serving member.

Christine McLintock, former general counsel for Pinsent Masons, is a Council member for Edinburgh and the Convener of the Education and Training (Policy) Committee.

The Head of Legal and Democratic Services at Aberdeen City Council, Jane MacEachran, has been on the Council for eleven years and is the Convener of the Admissions Sub-Committee.

Society Treasurer and Law Reform Committee Convener David Newton represents the constituency of Dumbarton and has been a member of the Council since 2005.

The President, Bruce Beveridge, praised the “strong field of candidates”. He urged all Council members to take part in the electronic vote. The results are due to be announced at the Council meeting on 13 December.


E-elections

Members are to be consulted on a change to the Society’s constitution that would allow for a move to electronic voting in Council elections.

Sheekha Saha, Convener of the Constitution Working Party, said e-voting was already used in presidential and Board elections but should be rolled out further.

The President, Bruce Beveridge, said the profession has already given overwhelming support for a move to e-voting, quoting the 2012 survey of the profession by Ipsos MORI which suggested over 90% of members favoured such a change.

The consultation exercise will also consider whether e-voting should be compulsory or members should be given the choice of paper voting.

The issue will be discussed again by the Council before going to the Society’s annual general meeting in March.


England and Wales

Proposals for stepping up engagement with the Society’s third largest constituency are to be examined.

The Council member representing England and Wales, Alberto Costa, said the Society should look at what more it could do to represent and support solicitors south of the border.

He added that Scottish solicitors in England and Wales might also be able to contribute more, for instance, acting as ambassadors for the profession in Scotland and promoting the brand of the Scottish solicitor.

It was agreed that the matter should be taken forward by the Society, which is in line with actions contained in the 2013/14 corporate plan.

Council Meeting, 25 October 2013

Review of judicial factories

A series of measures aimed at adapting and improving the arrangements for the appointment of Judicial Factors are to be taken forward, the Council agreed.

The decision followed a review of judicial factory appointments, which made a number of recommendations. Some of the recommendations are already being developed by the Society’s Board, with others to be considered further by a working party.

Council member David Preston, who conducted the review, said it had not identified any major concerns but added that some changes would help to “get ahead of the game”.

A report added: “In general terms, I found that there were no fundamental difficulties with the current procedures. However, much of what is done is on an ad hoc basis without any formal policy or set procedure.

“Such procedures may be more susceptible to challenge than established processes and generally it would be advisable to formalise procedures where possible.”

The review was carried out following the Ross Harper Judicial Factor appointment last year. 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.

Society President Bruce Beveridge described the review and report as “extremely thorough and detailed”.


Legal aid

A wide-ranging discussion on legal aid issues heard concerns about a ruling permitting counsel to appear without a solicitor agent, as well as the latest timetable for reforms to the criminal legal aid system.

Council members heard that the ruling of the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates on counsel appearing without an agent in civil litigation had prompted the Scottish Legal Aid Board to produce new guidance. As a result, it will be necessary for solicitors to justify attendance at a hearing.

Concerns were raised at the lack of consultation before the ruling was made. The Society has asked members for their views on the issue and is considering what further work is required.

On criminal legal aid, the Council heard that the Scottish Government is expected to launch a consultation on contracting by the end of the year. In the absence of specific proposals, the Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Negotiating Team is taking a neutral position on the issue.

Also, the introduction contributions in criminal legal aid has been delayed further, with the expected implementation date now January next year.


Committee member recruitment

Council members backed moves towards open advertisement and recruitment for committee members.

A debate on the issue heard that the aim was to increase transparency and consistency.

A report before Council members said: “There has been no set process in place to provide a consistent approach and, as such, processes for filling committee places can vary.”

It was stressed that flexibility should be retained for conveners to make appointments in special circumstances, such as an urgent need to fill a vacancy or where a committee member is required to come from a specific organisation.

The Nominations Committee will take the plans forward and review their effectiveness after six months. The annual cost of the revised system is estimated to be £500.

Recruitment of committee members is currently managed by individual teams or committee secretaries.


E-elections

Proposals for electronic voting in Council elections are currently being developed, the Council was told.

Sheekha Saha, Convener of the Constitution Working Party, said the aim was to bring a recommendation to the Council prior to the Society’s annual general meeting next March.

Council Meeting, 30 August 2013

Society’s fees and budget

Solicitors will vote on a further freeze in the practising certificate subscription at next month’s special general meeting, while small increases in non-practising fees were agreed today by the Council.

The fee levels were considered by Council members alongside a discussion on the Society’s budget for 2013/14.

To provide financial stability and in recognition of ongoing economic difficulties, a motion proposing a PC fee of £550 – the fourth successive year at that level – will now be put to members at the SGM.

A report before the Council said that the intention was also to retain the same PC subscription level for the next three financial years “barring a significant change, eg a drop in member numbers or entity charging”.

It added: “This would be financed with phased increases in the retention and non-practising member fees – addressing concerns that the Society is under-selling the Scottish solicitor badge, and that the gulf between the PC fee and non-practising member fee is too wide.”

The Council agreed that next year’s retention fee for remaining on the roll of solicitors should rise by £5 to £80, with the non-practising member fee going up by £10 to £160.

The accounts fee will increase by £20 but the Guarantee Fund contribution will decrease by the same amount, resulting in the combined fee remaining £580.

The Society’s budget for 2013/14 shows a small deficit of £4,000, which will be funded from reserves.

The Society’s corporate plan for 2013/14, which sets out how a range of strategic objectives will be met, was also approved by the Council.


Special general meeting

Council members agreed the agenda of the Society’s SGM, which will include a motion on the issue of separate representation for borrowers and lenders in heritable property transactions.

A report before the Council outlined the results of a comprehensive consultation on separate representation, which was carried out by the Society. The consultation, which closed towards the end of July, received 279 responses.

The report found that, without any weighting for organisations or individuals and other factors, the split was 48.9% in favour of changing the rules to make separate representation mandatory, with 51.1% against.

It said the issue was “finely balanced”, adding: “The evidence which has been analysed discloses that this is very much a live issue with strong opinions for and against separate representation.”

During a lengthy discussion, it was explained that the Society had given a commitment at the annual general meeting in March to bring forward a proposed rule change.

The Council agreed that a motion on the conflict of interest rules should be put to the SGM, with a full debate taking place and members voting on the proposals.

The Society’s Regulatory Committee will consider the draft rule this week, with this determining the exact form of what will come to the SGM.

A further motion amending the incidental financial business rules will also be put to the SGM.

In addition, members will vote on two constitutional amendments. One would allow open proxies for general meetings to be submitted electronically, rather than only by post. The other takes into account the effect of the planned court closures on the link between Council constituencies and sheriff court districts.

The SGM will be held on 23 September at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Glasgow.


Criminal legal aid e-surveying

A new system of electronic surveying of criminal legal aid solicitors is to be introduced by the Society.

It will build on existing communications channels, which include social media.

Andrew Alexander, Head of Access to Justice, told Council members a secure system of e-surveying would help the Society understand what members are thinking as issues develop and make better decisions on the legal aid strategy.

He said it would be particularly useful when a consultation paper on the issue of contracting is published by the Scottish Government later this year.

He added: “We will be able to make decisions with an understanding of the centre of gravity within the profession.”

The Society’s President, Bruce Beveridge, who attended most of the summer dialogue events organised by the Scottish Legal Aid Board, said that SLAB had not yet provided a compelling case for the introduction of contracting.

He recognised that, while views were still mixed, many within the criminal Bar had deep reservations about contracting.

There is still great uncertainty as to what particular contracting model or options will be presented to Scottish ministers for approval.

The President added: “It is extremely important that we do everything we possibly can to capture all the views we can across this sector of the profession.”

Council Meeting, 28 June 2013

Scotland’s constitutional future

The legal profession and system must be at the heart of the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future, a paper before Council members stressed.

The draft paper set out a number of issues that will feature in the run-up to the referendum on Scotland’s independence.

Key issues – which were identified from discussions and events with the profession, Society committees, stakeholders and at political party conferences – included:

  • Scotland’s membership of the European Union and international treaties and organisations
  • what a ‘no’ vote could mean for Scotland
  • the impact of independence on the economy and business
  • judicial and parliamentary restructuring in the event of independence

The paper said: “The Society believes that whatever Scotland’s future, Scotland’s law, legal system and legal profession must be at the centre of policy development.

“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.”

It added that the Society would respect the varied individual views of members and remain neutral on the question of whether or not Scotland should become independent.

Members debated the paper, focusing on the issues of whether or not the UK and Scottish Governments should disclose their legal advice on EU membership and also how both independence and the status quo would impact on the legal system and profession.

The draft paper, which was described as a “work in progress”, will be brought back to the Council. It is scheduled for publication in the autumn to use as an engagement tool with political parties and the referendum campaigns.


Constitution and e-voting

Members should vote on two constitutional amendments recommended by the Society’s Constitution Working Party, the Council agreed.

One would allow open proxies for general meetings to be submitted electronically, rather than only by post, as at present.

The other minor change takes into account the effect of the planned court closures on the link between Council constituencies and sheriff court districts.

Changes to the constitutions should increase transparency and make better use of technology, the Council was told.

A scoping exercise is currently under way to prioritise future reform work.


Legal services reform

The introduction of reforms to the legal services marketplace are moving forward, Council members heard.

A progress report on discussions with the Scottish Government said recent meetings on implementation of the Legal Services (Scotland) Act had been helpful.

Further talks are due to take place in July. A further progress report will be brought to the Council in August.


Council

Office bearers and senior executive staff from the Law Society’s of England and Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland were welcomed as guests at the Council meeting

They later took part in a four jurisdictions meeting hosted by the Society in Edinburgh.

The new member for Cupar, Susan Williams, was also welcomed to the Council.

Council Meeting, 31 May 2013

President and vice president

The 50th President of the Society took up office with a promise to do his utmost for the profession and the public during a period of challenges and profound change.

Bruce Beveridge, who has held several senior roles in the public sector and also worked in private practice, said it was “enormously exciting” to take up the post when a number of major issues lay ahead.

He said later that he was determined to ensure the Society remained at the heart of the debate over issues such as legal aid, court reforms, access to justice, alternative business structures and the independence referendum.

He added that he would strive to maintain the momentum built up by his predecessor, Austin Lafferty, who had done a “tremendous job” as President.

He said Austin had “taken us places we haven’t been before” by using his “bottomless media skills” to communicate with others and effectively represent both the profession and the Society.

He said that if his predecessor has been a “song and dance man” then “we have had a damn good cabaret – and there’s time for one or two more encores in the year ahead”.

Alistair Morris, Chief Executive of Pagan Osborne and a Council member for 21 years, took up the post of Vice President.

Tribute was also paid to outgoing Past President Cameron Ritchie, who was leaving Council after eight years. He was praised for his “leadership skills and straight talking” during his presidential year.

John Flanagan, who also left the Council, was described as a hard-working constituency member.

New members Simon Brown – representing Greenock, Kilmarnock and Paisley – and Nick Taylor, recently elected in Glasgow and Strathkelvin, were welcomed to the Council.


Legal aid review

A series of measures to improve the Society’s work on criminal legal aid issues was agreed by the Council.

The changes were put forward following a five-month review and consultation exercise into new ways of working and the governance of the criminal legal aid team.

The new measures are designed to improve the way criminal defence lawyers are represented and supported and create new channels of communication.

The Council agreed to:

  • establish a network of criminal legal aid contacts or ‘champions’ across Scotland
  • create an online forum for members to discuss and share views on criminal legal aid
  • pilot electronic surveying of practitioner views on critical issues

A debate among Council members focused on the issue of electronic surveying, with some raising concerns that it could undermine the position of the Council and legal aid negotiating team. It may also lead to calls for similar systems to be put in place for other areas of representation work.

Others said it would give members and faculties a better voice and ensure the Society was fully aware of their views on important issues. A structured system for quickly gathering members’ opinions could help the decision-making process and assist in negotiations, it was argued.

A paper detailing how a system of electronic surveying could work in practice will be brought to the June Council meeting.


Trainee pay rates

The recommended pay for trainee solicitors is to be frozen at the 2012/13 rate.

Council members took the decision to hold the rates for the year from 1 June at £16,200 for first-year trainees and £19,400 for second-year trainees.

The rate was previously frozen in 2011, though it increased by 1.5% last year.

A number of Council members argued that the rate should not increase at a time when many other members of staff in firms and organisations had experienced year-on-year pay freezes due to the economic downturn.

Concerns were raised that the headline figure could discourage some from taking on trainees.

Others stressed the rise of 2.8% put forward by the Education and Training Committee – which was based on the consumer price inflation rate – was simply a benchmark and firms could choose to pay more or less.

They stressed that trainees also faced financial difficulties, while providing good value for training firms.


Fair access to the profession

A review of potential barriers to entering the solicitors’ profession will be wide-ranging, the Council agreed.

A report before Council members set out the scope of a study to look at the current route to qualification and any barriers that exist for those hoping to qualify as solicitors.

The study will involve gathering data and other evidence to help define fair access barriers. It will focus on access to the LLB, Diploma in Professional Legal Practice, traineeship and newly qualified positions.

The value of the Diploma was questioned during a debate, with suggestions that the cost of the course prevented students from less privileged backgrounds entering the profession.

Liz Campbell, the Director of Education and Training Policy, said “nothing has been ruled in and nothing has been ruled out” of the review, including the role of the Diploma.

An interim report will be brought to the Council in three months, with a final report out in November.

The review was prompted by recommendations from the Campaign for Fair Access to the Legal Profession.


Residential conveyancing

A new group is to be set up to review residential conveyancing law and practice.

The Council agreed that the Coneyancing Working Party should examine the sale and purchase of homes and bring forward proposals for improvement and modernisation.

The group will be led by Ross MacKay, Convener of the Society’s Property Law Committee.

He said later that the debate on separate representation provided an opportunity to carry out a wider review of residential conveyancing.

A six-month interim report and final report are expected to be brought to the Council.

Council Meeting, 26 April 2013

Fair access to the profession

Barriers to entering the solicitors’ profession will be examined by a new Society study.

The move was agreed as part of the Council’s response to recommendations made by the Campaign for Fair Access to the Legal Profession (CFALP).

The study will look at the current route to qualification and any barriers that exist for those hoping to qualify as solicitors.

A scoping exercise will be carried out and reported back to Council members. Members will then be asked for their views. The project should be completed before the end of the year.

During a debate, the principle of fair access was stressed, with funding issues also discussed. Members agreed that the Society should embed fair access considerations in all long-term planning and relevant decision-making.

The Society’s Vice President, Bruce Beveridge, paid tribute to the Education and Training Committee for preparing the paper, which he said raised a number of detailed issues.

CFALP, which campaigns against policies that prevent students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering the legal profession, presented a paper containing a number of proposals to last month’s Council meeting.


Future of conveyancing

The Society is to set up a new group to consider the modernisation of the conveyancing process in Scotland.

The working party will be established amid the ongoing debate about introducing separate representation of buyers and lenders in property transactions.

Ross MacKay, Convener of the Separate Representation Working Party, supported the proposal.

He argued that conveyancing solicitors were concerned about a number of current issues, including separate representation and the Council of Mortgage Lenders’ response to last month’s vote at the Society’s annual general meeting in favour of the move.

He said: “Now is the time to have a working party to look at these issues and try to come up with some recommendations.”

A number of Council members backed the new working party, stressing that the Society should be providing leadership and proactively developing new ideas.

The President, Austin Lafferty, said: “There is change going on elsewhere. As a Society, we should be at the centre of that rather than waiting to see what happens.”

However, it was also argued that the conveyancing sector was “nervous” about changes taking place and now was not the time to add to that uncertainty. Rather, a debate should first take place to better understand the views of members.

It was agreed to set up the working party and consider its remit and composition.


Commonwealth Law Conference

Lawyers around the world deserve strong support in their struggles for personal liberty and the rule of law and against violence and oppression, the Council heard.

Society President Austin Lafferty said the Commonwealth Law Conference in South Africa earlier this month had been the “most powerful” event he had attended.

He said he had a new respect for lawyers working in difficult circumstances after being “hugely moved” by their stories.

He stressed his enthusiasm to maintain strong support for colleagues around the Commonwealth.

He predicted that Glasgow would match Cape Town’s success when it hosts the next Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association conference.

He said the Society representatives had worked extremely hard to learn from the event, adding: “We finished the conference with a bang and very much set the scene for Glasgow 2015.”


Council members

Tribute was paid to three outgoing Council members with almost 25 combined years of service.

President Austin Lafferty said they had all made a valuable contribution to the Council and served their constituents well.

He said former president, Jamie Millar, who sat on the ruling body for nine years, provided “true leadership” during his presidential year, when the profession was wrestling with a number of controversial issues. “If ever there was a president who lived up to the motto of ‘keep calm and carry on’, it was Jamie.”

The President said Andrew Glencross was one of the longest serving members – having joined the Council in 1999 to represent solicitors in Kilmarnock – and was widely respected for his “clear grasp of even the most complex issues, his clarity of thought and his absolute integrity”.

Michael Nicholson, who represented Glasgow & Strathkelvin, retired after a year on Council.  He recently took up a new role as company secretary at Celtic Football Club, his “absolute passion”. Austin Lafferty added: “Over the last year, Michael has truly made his mark, raising a number of important issues on behalf of his constituents.”

Council Meeting, 22 March 2013

Fair access to the profession

The Society is to give more detailed consideration to proposals put forward by the Campaign for Fair Access to the Legal Profession (CFALP).

Tim Haddow from CFALP presented a paper to Council members. Society Vice President Bruce Beveridge paid tribute to the campaign group and for the “rich debate” that took place at the Council meeting.

The CFALP paper asked the Council to:

  • adopt a policy aim that the route to qualification as a solicitor should not depend someone’s ability to fund their own education and training
  • establish a review to identify and evaluate options for reforming the route to qualification
  • lobby the Scottish Government to extend means-tested maintenance loans to Diploma students
  • instruct the Society to monitor and report on the socio-economic diversity of the profession

The paper said: “All with the ability, character and motivation to be lawyers should be able to compete equally and on merit to enter the profession.

“Personal or family economic circumstances should not be a factor working to exclude those from less privileged backgrounds.

“This is not just good business sense; a more diverse and representative profession will provide better access to justice and underpin a legal system that recognises and balances the needs and interests of all sectors of society.”

Tim Haddow argued that the cost of qualifying as a solicitor was presenting a barrier to entering the profession, particularly for those from less privileged backgrounds.

Council members praised CFALP for raising awareness of the issue of access to the profession.

Past President Cameron Ritchie commended the group’s paper and said it should now start a debate on the issue.

The meeting agreed that the Society’s Education and Training Committee will now consider the CFALP proposals in more detail and report back to the Council in April.

The Society introduced a revised route to qualification as a solicitor in 2011 following a wide-ranging review and extensive consultation.


Scottish Legal Complaints Commission levy

Any increase in the annual complaints levy must take account of the current economic conditions and the substantial rise imposed last year, the Society will tell the SLCC.

Council members discussed the Society’s response to the SLCC’s proposed budget and levy for 2013/14.

Under the proposals, the main levy would go up from £318 to £324, a rise of 1.8%. Although SLCC costs are expected to increase due to taking on more staff, just over £200,000 would be released from reserves to help keep the levy rise down.

The Council meeting heard that the proposed increase was broadly in line with expectations. The Society consulted members and will now submit its response to the SLCC.

The SLCC published its draft budget in January. The budget changes would take effect at the beginning of July.

Report of Cabinet Secretary for Justice address to Council, 22 February 2013

Changes to legal aid have been difficult and caused upset but the Scottish Government had no alternative due to pressures on public finances, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice told the Society’s Council during an address and Q&A session.

Kenny MacAskill also assured Council members that there was no “master plan” to introduce a new system of contracting of firms in criminal cases, or roll out the Public Defence Solicitors’ Office (PDSO).

In a wide-ranging address, he discussed issues such as access to justice, court closures, access to the profession, the rule of law, the franchise for the referendum on Scottish independence and liquor licensing.

Much of the session focused on legal aid issues following the passing of the Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance (Scotland) Bill through the Scottish Parliament at the end of January. The legislation introduced contributions for criminal legal aid, with solicitors expected to collect payments from clients.

Mr MacAskill said the easiest option for the Scottish Government would have been to follow the model in England and Wales and remove whole areas of legal work from the legal aid system.

He added that the Scottish Government’s intention was to preserve the integrity of the legal aid system, which will continue to protect the most vulnerable in society.

He said: “I actually think we’ve got the right method here so it did mean belt tightening and it has meant hardship for some. It has meant working harder or longer when people already work long and hard so it gives me no satisfaction but I didn’t feel that I had any alternative. I didn’t wish to be doing this. But I have to make hard decisions and that was the decision I made.

“I know the challenges and I know that this has caused great upset to many. These are difficult times. I have had to make decisions that are very unpopularwith some of you.

“I think the Scottish legal aid system can hold its head up high, most especially with what’s happening south of the border but even with what’s happening across the Irish Sea.”

He explained that only those who could afford to make a contribution to criminal legal aid would do so – with 88% of people making no contribution – while the matter of collection was a “culture change” for solicitors.

He apologised for the difficulties facing the criminal bar but added: “If we come together on a basis of mutual respect and understanding, we are actually all on the same side. We will disagree about tactics. We will disagree about individual decisions. I don’t expect them to be appreciated and I can understand the depth of feeling. I hope, though, people would recognise that it came from a position of trying to preserve the best aspects of the profession.”

On the issue of contracting, he said there was a commitment to look at the system but “there is no master plan about to be unfolded on the profession – it doesn’t exist”.

He said: “Nothing has come before me about contracting – there is nothing formulated at all. I’ve ruled nothing in and I’ve ruled nothing out. Let’s engage and discuss.”

Likewise, he added that there was no “grand plan” to roll out the PDSO, though he would do what was necessary to protect the integrity of the court system where a lack of representation existed.

In response to a question about the possibility of court closures, Mr MacAskill pointed out that solicitors themselves had complained about the “dismal” facilities at some courts. He acknowledged that some premises may be untenable but the issues were a matter for the Lord President and the Scottish Court Service.

The possible removal of the requirement for corroboration, he said, would be discussed by the Scottish Parliament, taking account of all views on the issue.

Responding to a question about government policy threatening the rule of law, he added: “The suggestion that Scotland is living in the lap of a dictatorship is just not true.”

Mr MacAskill recognised that the debate on alternative business structures had caused division in the profession “and it still rankles with some” but he insisted the right decisions had been taken and efforts were being made to introduce reforms to the marketplace as quickly and efficiently as possible.

On other issues, he defended the shift in Diploma funding from grants to loans and argued that the franchise for the referendum on independence was based on the same system of voting as Scottish parliamentary elections, which was set by the UK Government. He said the move to a single police force could improve the system of liquor licensing in Scotland.

The minister paid tribute to the Society for its “outstanding job” in engaging with government on behalf of the solicitors’ profession and the clients they serve, telling Council members: “You have some of the most assiduous and best representatives of any organisation.”

He concluded that the profession was very different to the one he joined in the 1980s, not least because of cutbacks and redundancies. He said: “It’s a lot harder now. Some of the changes I would probably have preferred not to have made but the world we live in has changed and we have to go with it. I hope you would be able to appreciate that the commitment is to making the profession better, stronger and retaining its integrity.”

The Society President, Austin Lafferty, thanked Mr MacAskill for addressing Council members.

Council Meeting, 1 February 2013

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.


Separate representation

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.


Council elections

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.


Council members

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.