Council reports 2015

Council Meeting, 27 February 2015

Legal aid discussion paper

The Society should work with others in the justice system to take forward reform of legal aid, the Council heard.

Council members discussed an update on the response to the Society’s legal aid discussion paper, Legal Assistance in Scotland – Fit for the 21st Century. At the time of its publication in November, the Society identified the need for “root and branch change” of the system.

Respondents to the paper broadly agreed that the system was inefficient and complicated and should be modernised to adapt to wider justice reforms. The lack of funding in legal assistance and concerns about access to justice were also highlighted. Civil and criminal legal aid practitioners raised a number of separate issues.

The President, Alistair Morris, said the Society should help bring together other key organisations to build a system that is “efficient, worthwhile and which we can all be proud of”.

Access to Justice Committee Convener Stuart Naismith agreed that the Society should work with others to drive the issue forward.

Lay Council member Dr Bronwen Cohen said the Society must also work hard to raise awareness and support from the public.

The Council agreed that the Legal Aid Committee should lead on taking the work forward, while also involving other relevant committees.


Bowen report

The Society will act on recommendations made following an independent review of consumer protections for housebuyers and sellers in Scotland, the Council heard.

Sheriff Principal Edward Bowen carried out the review of consumer protections, conveyancing practice and the existing legal framework following high-profile cases in Aberdeenshire and West Lothian where clients were left without proper title to land bought through residential property transactions.

He concluded that the separate cases arose for very different reasons and were highly complex and unusual, and did not suggest a fundamental problem with conveyancing practice. 

However, the Society has committed to taking forward recommendations in Sheriff Principal Bowen’s report, some of which are already being considered by the current independent review of the Guarantee Fund. 

Some of the suggestions made, such as the establishment of a possible new fund for homebuyers, would be a matter for Scottish ministers.

The Society is continuing to work with those involved to discuss how outstanding issues could be progressed in the two separate cases, a report before the Council said. 


Annual accounts

The finances of the Society and the Guarantee Fund are in a stable position, according the annual accounts.

The accounts and annual report for 2013/14 were before Council members.

Presenting the accounts, Treasurer David Newton explained that the Society made an overall deficit of £73,000 against a budget that aimed to break even.

However, over a two-year period reserves have increased due to a £206,000 surplus in 2012/13.

In 2013/14, the Guarantee Fund made an overall surplus of £661,000 and reserves had grown to £6.47 million at the year-end.

Council members also approved the annual report, which was described as an “excellent” publication.


Constitutional change

The ongoing process of constitutional change will feature in a document setting out key priorities for the political parties ahead of the general election, according to a report before the Council.

The report updated Council members on work being carried out on the issue of constitutional change and new powers for the Scottish Parliament. The document outlining the Society’s priorities will be published at the beginning of March.

Other Society work has included responding to the Smith Commission and examining the subsequent Scotland clauses. A response to the clauses will be drawn up.

The Society has also given written and oral evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons.

A number of events are planned for later in the year, including fringe events at the spring party conferences. 


Leslie Cumming and Joe Beltrami

Tributes were paid to two senior legal figures who died earlier this month.

The President, Alistair Morris, said the Society’s former Chief Accountant and Deputy Chief Executive, Leslie Cumming, was a “man of great integrity”.

He said that Leslie had overhauled the Guarantee Fund operations and financial compliance regime during 22 years at the Society, a contribution that earned him respect across the profession.

The President described him as “scrupulously fair but firm and honest”.

He also paid tribute to “outstanding” criminal lawyer Joe Beltrami, adding: “He had a deep sense of access to justice and the rights of the accused. He was truly a role model for many of today’s criminal court practitioners.”

He added that Joe was the last Scottish solicitor to be awarded honorary membership of the Society.

The President said the Society’s sympathies were with the men’s families, friends and colleagues.