President's message: The whole profession must be ready to engage with the Executive over the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill

From Airth to Kilmarnock, via Vienna, and from young lawyers to a new judge, variety continued to be the spice of life in February.

I attended the Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association meeting in Airth Castle at the beginning of the month. This continues to be an excellent weekend for trainees and more recently qualified solicitors. There was something for everyone and if the bleary eyes of some people were anything to go by, the social life at the conference continues to be excellent. I commend particularly the young lawyers who are prepared to be involved in running the organisation. They show fantastic commitment and the Society is happy to work with the Association to continue to highlight important issues for those starting out in our profession.

The first in the series of “The Roadshow” took place in Kilmarnock on 15 February. One of my main objectives this year was to improve on the current levels of communication between the profession and the Society, and these roadshows are an excellent tool, allowing the profession to meet members of the Society’s Executive and benefit from their expertise. The initial roadshow promoted lively debate and is to be repeated in Dumfries, Greenock and Elgin.

From a rather damp Kilmarnock I then moved to snowy Vienna where the European Bar Leaders’ Conference takes place each February. We had a busy time with two extremely well attended plenary sessions and then breakout groups looking at harmonisation/mutual recognition in criminal and contract law. It was fascinating to hear the various views on this topic, with some people taking the view that a harmonised law in both of these areas for the whole of Europe is highly desirable, and others (including our own jurisdiction) feeling that mutual recognition rather than harmonisation is more appropriate. The Austrian Justice Minister, Karin Gastinger, spoke at length on the issue of security in a country versus justice. On the one hand individuals expect their governments to enhance the security for the country but on the other hand a government has to maintain the rights of an individual to a fair trial, presumption of innocence, etc. She also stressed that in her view it is best for the Justice Minister to work hand in hand with the legal profession in an atmosphere of mutual trust. It was interesting that many solicitors applauded her for this, rather than taking this statement for granted.

The snappily titled Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill is about to be published as I write. Four core elements have been underpinning all of the Society’s discussions with the Executive. These are:

  • Independence. Appointment of the members of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission and its Board should be free from the involvement of Scottish Ministers.
  • Compliance with the European Convention of Human Rights in relation to both the public and the profession’s right of appeal against decisions.
  • Realistic cost analysis to ensure that any burden on the profession is reasonable and justifiable.
  • Consideration of access to justice issues and a strategic analysis of the threat any change to the complaints system may have to rural and high street firms.

At the Society’s AGM on 17 March I hope to have a full debate in relation to the areas of the bill that cause most concern and I would encourage you all to attend. This is not a time for apathy in the profession. A lack of engagement on this issue will be seen as acquiescence in the Executive’s proposals, no matter what they are.

At the time of my preparing this article, we have yet to hear back from the Justice Minister as to whether an increase in solemn legal aid can be agreed notwithstanding the fact that any new payment scheme will not now be brought in until April 2007. As time goes on, my optimism is becoming less. We will let the profession know the result of these negotiations as soon as we have some news, whatever the outcome.

And the high point of this month – I attended the installation of Lord Brailsford and was extremely amused, as were all of their Lordships on the bench, when his three young sons bowed back to him in court 3 at the end of the installation. It must have been good for the courtroom to see such young children there!

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