Law Society publishes its priorities for next UK Government
The protection of human rights, growing the economy and gaining long term clarity on the UK’s membership of the European Union should be among the key priorities for political parties, the Law Society of Scotland said today, 2 March.
The Society has published a new document, which sets out four major policy areas it believes the next UK Government should take action on. This includes protecting human rights, including the retention of the Human Rights Act, and reviewing the economic, constitutional and legal issues around EU membership and any EU referendum. The paper also focuses on achieving a stable devolution settlement for Scotland and retaining legal services at the heart of a growing economy.
Alistair Morris, President of the Law Society of Scotland said: “A general election is an important event and allows for a national debate on a wide range of issues. Whatever the election outcome, there are major issues needing tackled and some big decisions to take, decisions which could have profound implications for our country.
“Last year, the referendum debate saw an unprecedented level of political engagement here in Scotland along with a record turnout at the polls. It is vital that the political parties harness that momentum in the run up to the UK election in May. Just as with the referendum last year, we very much look forward to being part of the national debate and will be discussing our priorities with the political parties over the coming weeks.”
The four priorities set out by the Law Society are:
1. The protection of human rights and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)
The Law Society is urging political parties to commit to the protection of human rights and to upholding the rule of law, by retaining the Human Rights Act 1998 and for the UK to remain within the jurisdiction of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The Society also calls on the UK Government to avoid taking any action which could impact the legal framework of human rights in Scotland without the explicit consent of the Scottish Parliament.
Mr Morris said: “Human rights are for everyone and ECHR is the most developed international human rights regime in the world. It has had significant positive impact, not just upon the Scottish legal landscape, but in helping to protect the rights of our citizens, paving the way for significant rulings such as the abolition of slopping out in prisons.
“Withdrawing from ECHR and repealing the Human Rights Act could damage the UK’s standing in the international community and leave the UK alone with Belarus as the only two European states not signatories to ECHR.
“We can never take the legal protection which comes from human rights legislation for granted. That is why the next UK Government, whatever its makeup, must protect human rights and respect the views of the Scottish Parliament before any decisions are taken on the legal framework of human rights here in Scotland.”
2. A stable devolution settlement for Scotland
The Law Society is calling for parties to recognise the importance of constitutional reform and to include clear and specific commitments in their manifestos so voters can make an informed choice in May.
The Society also calls on the next UK Government to bring forward legislation as soon as practicable after the election to deliver enhanced powers for the Scottish Parliament in line with the Smith Commission recommendations.
Mr Morris said: “The next UK Government has the opportunity to deliver a devolution settlement that can truly stand the test of time.
“The public need to be given as much clarity as possible on what the political parties would deliver if they came into power in May, whether that be the recommendations of the Smith Commission or an alternative package of powers. This will allow Scottish voters to make an informed choice when it comes to casting their votes.
“As a regulator ourselves, the Law Society has a particular interest in seeing the devolution of estate agency as well as some remaining aspects of solicitor regulation, such as immigration advice, financial services advice and insolvency practice. This would allow for a more flexible approach which, above all, maintains standards and better protects the consumer of legal services.”
3. The provision of long term clarity on the UK’s membership of the European Union
The Law Society is not taking a position, either in favour or against a referendum on EU membership. Similarly, it will not advocate a particular outcome if such a referendum is held. This is consistent with the approach taken by the Society for the recent referendum on Scottish independence.
However, the Society is urging political parties to consider how they would maintain any economic benefits and barrier-free access to critical markets after any exit from the EU. Similarly, the document calls for an analysis of whether the major policy, legislative and administrative complexities from an EU exit would have a detrimental effect on intra-UK relations.
Mr Morris said: “There are clearly strong and differing views about whether the UK should be a member of the European Union, differences which exist within the legal profession as well as the public as a whole.
“After the election, it will be important for the new UK Government to provide as much clarity as possible on the UK’s membership of the EU. After all, we know that any ongoing uncertainty could lead to foreign companies diverting or postponing investment into the UK.
“If there is a referendum then it is essential that the full economic, constitutional and legal aspects of EU membership are considered. In particular, it is important that the parties consider the impact of any further decentralisation across the UK and whether any exit from the EU would create constitutional problems within the devolution settlement itself.”
4. The retention of legal services at the heart of a growing economy
In its fourth priority, the Law Society is calling for political parties to support the role of the legal sector in securing long term economic growth.
To support business and jobs, the Society has called for further efforts to remove unnecessary regulation, particularly for new business start-ups, along with new incentives for hiring staff and further efforts to encourage bank lending for small and medium sized firms. The Society also pushes for further support for the increasing number of legal firms looking to grow internationally and entering new markets.
Mr Morris said: “The Scottish and UK economies are on the road to recovery. However, we cannot take this for granted. The next UK Government must focus on continuing to rebuild our economy and support new businesses to grow, creating new jobs and reducing bureaucracy.
“The number of practising solicitors is now at an all-time high of 11,000 and the legal sector contributes over £1billion to the Scottish economy each year, responsible for over 20,000 jobs. The next UK Government needs to continue to recognise the importance of the legal sector to the continued economic recovery as well as Scotland’s position in providing high quality and cost effective legal services, both domestically and internationally.”
Notes to editors
The full document is available on the Law Society of Scotland’s website.
It should be noted that the priorities are not listed in any particular order of importance.
As a strictly non-partisan organisation, the Society remains neutral in its stance on EU membership.
Areas which are not covered in the document include legal aid, court reform and elements of justice which are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The Society will return to these areas ahead of the Holyrood elections in 2016.
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