President's message: solicitors will support change for the better, but unless the Legal Profession Bill is amended it will not produce a better system

The solicitors’ profession sometimes enjoys the unenviable reputation of being resistant to change. I myself have certain ways of getting work done and do not like them being altered. I am certainly unimpressed when I get to grips with one legal aid form only to find that it has changed, but if there is one profession which is adept at change when it matters, it is ours. The Society’s Council and Executive are seen from the outside as possibly also being resistant to change. As I listened to the Council debate on Friday, I thought of the tremendous change at the Society over the past few years and realised how untrue the reputation is.

Over the last 10 years the Society’s executive has been modernised almost beyond recognition into a businesslike and efficient organisation. The Council now has time to devote to proper debate rather than being drowned in a sea of paper as it was before our delegated powers scheme was introduced. Council is now embracing new ideas and concepts that would have been inconceivable even eight years ago when I first became a Council member.

The Society has called for an independent Complaints Commission to be set up. The Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill was published last month and whilst it does set up such an independent commission, the reach of that body is far beyond dealing with service complaints. We have advised the Executive all along that in our view the proposed Commission is not ECHR compliant. Our concerns relate to the lack of an external appeal; the composition and lack of independence of the Commission; and the payment of a case fee even where a solicitor is exonerated. The Scottish Executive needs to be prepared to reconsider these issues and the Society and its members must keep telling them to do so. I have already emailed and written to all of you highlighting the other areas where the Society has concerns in relation to the bill. The real test now for the Society is to make sure that our proposals and arguments are seen as well thought out and constructive criticism rather than merely a reaction to the suggestion of change. Change in this area must be for the better rather than just for the sake of it.

I was delighted that so many deans attended a meeting in the evening before the AGM. There was a far-reaching discussion, focusing mainly on legal aid and the bill. That discussion in relation to the bill was replicated at a very positive AGM the following day. May I thank all of those who attended the AGM and, in particular, those who might not normally have done so but wanted to be part of the discussion on the new bill. It was interesting and encouraging to hear the various concerns and points raised by all of those who attended the AGM. These concerns were expressed not only by the smaller high street firms but also representatives of some of the largest firms and also by academics.

The Annual Conference was also in March and its theme of “Get Connected” was particularly apt in a year when communication has been my main theme as President and the Society’s Journal also celebrated its 50th anniversary. I very much enjoyed the conference and I think that those attending also found it interesting and stimulating. 

By the time you read this it will also have been “all change” at the Scottish Legal Aid Board and the Ombudsman’s office. Jean Couper, chairman of SLAB, retired from that post at the end of March. She will be missed by those of us involved in legal aid work as she brought diplomacy and common sense to the job. At a time when a garage mechanic’s time is charged out at more than the legal aid rate for solicitors’ work I believe there has never been a greater threat to the provision of legal aid. I hope that Jean’s successor is appointed soon and that he/she shares Jean’s commitment?

Mrs Costelloe-Baker also leaves her post as Ombudsman over two months early, without any sign of her replacement being appointed. It will be unhelpful to the smooth running of the complaints system if there is a substantial gap. If the Scottish Executive wants a positive perception of their ability to oversee a complaints system they need to go the right way about it!

So there is much for the profession to focus on this month – although in the logistics of work and meetings that I am becoming increasingly adept at managing, as I finally get used to being President only just before I finish up, why is it that when the clocks go forward it feels as if a whole day has been lost rather than just one hour…?

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