President's message: events of the past month have brought renewed focus on the core professional values - and it could be said also, on the value of a profession

Our wider concerns

What should a legal profession be concerned about? We are a liberal profession, but  that does that mean for us? Are our obligations restricted so that they affect only our conduct towards clients and courts, or do we have wider perspectives to claim our attention?

The declaration of a state of emergency in Pakistan at the beginning of November caused concern around the world, not least because of the arrest and detention of so many lawyers and judges as well as the restrictions imposed on the operation of the courts. On behalf of the solicitor profession in Scotland, I wrote to the Pakistan High Commissioner at the outset of the crisis, both to express concern at these threats to the rule of law and also to call for the restoration of constitutional government in that country.

The events in Pakistan should serve to remind us all of the importance of the rule of law to any democratic and just society. As I reminded those present at last month’s Admissions Ceremony and practice management course, a regime of law is only of value if it is supported by a strong and independent legal profession, present in all sectors of activity. Such a profession is the guarantor of compliance with the rule of law, just as it is also the facilitator of development and success in society.

Justice and value

The rule of law itself can only truly be observed where there is real access to justice. We have to be clear what that means. At the very least it means that we have to ensure, within our own jurisdiction as much as overseas, that those who are in need of assistance in accessing justice can in turn have access to that assistance. We are all aware of the restrictions on public expenditure that impel governments to seek value for money, and as taxpayers I doubt that any of us would wish government to abandon proper control of the public purse. However, we have to be alive to the risk that the pursuit of such value for money can lead to a denial of justice. We have to work to ensure that justice is not denied through the lack of means on the part of individuals.

Justice is not served by pleas of convenience.

A tribute to leadership

As a liberal profession, we should aspire to high standards. In welcoming new solicitors at the Admissions Ceremony, I talked about some of the current major issues of concern to the profession: alternative business structures; education and training; and drawing up a new statement of professional standards. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I referred to those three issues again at a Society symposium described colloquially as the New Partners Course. At the heart of each of these three themes lie the core values and principles of this profession; it is important that we keep them in view as we look at the profession of the future. And part of planning for tomorrow involves mentally leaving behind what for some may be the comfort zone of today.

The role of solicitors in society was underlined during last month’s welcome debate in the Scottish Parliament on ABSs and a range of other issues. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, recognized the importance of the profession in maintaining the rule of law, which he described as so fundamental that it may well be the most important matter that a government can deliver. His tribute to the leadership and courage – his words – of the Society during a time of radical change, and his commitment to a consensual approach were encouraging; even more so the cross-party agreement that existed in the debating chamber. We must all work together to produce the best outcome for solicitors, their clients and civic Scotland as a whole.

Tomorrow’s providers

Just as the Society has obligations to uphold the rule of law, ensure access to justice and work for the benefit of society, so also we have obligations to the future. As once again, in November, qualifying heats started in the Society’s annual school debating tournament, and 134 teams the length and breadth of the country took up the challenge, we can take some satisfaction that some of tomorrow’s lawyers are having perhaps their first encounter with those same core values and principles. But more importantly, the competition shows that we recognise our duties to the future.

Today’s student debaters can be the providers of legal services in tomorrow’s Scotland.

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