These are momentous times for the Scottish legal profession, and many important issues are set to demand attention in the new presidential year

Taking up the presidency is unquestionably the high point of my legal career: it is a huge honour – and comes with equal responsibility.

I have always considered it a privilege to be a solicitor and to have the opportunity to help people, day in and day out – whether individuals at key points in their lives, organisations in their drive to reform or make better decisions, or Government ministers making or implementing legislation or policy.

I believe that when this period is viewed from the perspective of 30 years hence, it will likely be seen as that of the greatest change in the profession’s history. The scale of the change agenda drives the Society continually to increase its (already widely recognised) relevance, to the profession, citizens, Government and civic Scotland; leading that will be key for my year in office.

Slipping into the hot seat is akin to changing drivers in a long-distance motor race – one in which the track changes as the issues emerge and evolve. The car brakes heavily into the pits; the driver gets out and swaps intelligence with (in this case) his team mate who then slips behind the wheel; a highly professional team swarm around adjusting settings, and moments later the car is back out and up to speed. All the while, the pit wall team are scanning the horizon, anticipating and reacting. Austin is now sitting on the pit wall after a great performance, still ready to jump in when needed; and Alistair Morris is already watching the monitors, an integral part of the team. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with and learning from Austin, and greatly look forward to Alistair’s invaluable support – and that of the excellent Society team.

So what of some of the key issues? Reform of Scotland’s courts is certainly one. The Society has been at the heart of the court closures debate, arguing strongly that shutting 10 sheriff courts and seven JP courts is not compatible with Government commitment to widening access to justice, and could fail to achieve significant financial savings. I also remain genuinely concerned at the wider impact some closures could have on the local communities – and certainly the solicitors who work there.

Then, last month, we warned that some proposals in the draft Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill could cause serious difficulties. Our key concern is that increasing the threshold so that only civil cases valued at more than £150,000 are raised in the Court of Session, would have a massive knock-on effect on our sheriff courts.

Valuable research carried out by the Society’s Civil Justice Committee found that in one year, less than 2% of the civil cases dealt with by 10 of the main Court of Session user firms had a value in excess of £150,000. In other words, the reform proposed could result in a huge reduction in Court of Session business, while producing a deluge of cases for the sheriff courts, potentially leaving them unable to cope. Taken alongside the planned closures, the consequences could be serious for court users and communities.

The Society agrees that the threshold in civil cases should be raised, but to no more than £50,000. That way, cases of lower value, but which raise complex issues, could still be heard by the Court of Session. We will continue to work constructively with the Government and Scottish Court Service on implementing Lord Gill’s many welcome and much-needed recommendations.

Important discussions are due to take place over other high-profile issues, not least contracting in legal aid. The Scottish Legal Aid Board has published a timetable, which we have passed to members. The Society will consult the profession throughout to ensure we reflect their views on this key issue. The introduction of contracting would have a major impact on those who rely on legal aid, as well as the solicitors who represent them. Access to justice must form the basis of any changes to the legal aid system.

The radical agenda changes currently taking place extend to the question of whether access to the profession is sufficiently fair. Given the fundamental importance of the law to society, and the need to maintain a strong link between the public and legal profession, it is a matter that deserves proper consideration. At its May meeting, Council approved the scope of further work to assess this.

Many other issues will punctuate the next year, some of them significant. The proposal for separate representation is due to be revisited at the September SGM; a draft rule is expected to go out to consultation in early summer, and it is vital that members give us their views. Also, our firmly non-partisan role in the referendum debate – which is likely to come under increasing pressure – will continue and step up.

The Author
Bruce Beveridge is President of the Law Society of Scotland e: BruceBeveridge@lawscot.org.uk
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