Credit to the Government for changing course, for now, over Sheriff Appeal Court legal aid, following the Society’s representations; and how the changing legal market dominates many other discussions

You’ve probably been following the progress of the legal aid funding regulations relating to the new Sheriff Appeal Court. As the Society made clear from the outset, the proposals put forward for the funding of summary criminal appeals were entirely inadequate and could have posed serious consequences for access to justice. Clients, particularly those outwith the central belt, would have struggled to find a solicitor to take an appeal in the new court. Thankfully, the vocal role taken by the Society, in correspondence and personal meetings, and many in the profession – as well as the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee – resulted in a significant shift in the Scottish Government’s position.

The Government, in turn, deserves credit for listening to the concerns raised and responding appropriately. Although the revised regulations are intended only as an interim arrangement, access to justice will remain protected during the transitional period. The fact that the role of solicitor advocates in the new court was recognised also provides a welcome reassurance. It is only right that our members are fairly remunerated for the essential legal aid work they carry out on behalf of people in need. We are very supportive of the current court reforms overall. We will continue to work with the Government to ensure that in the longer term the Sheriff Appeal Court can operate effectively and efficiently, and that full consideration is given to the rates for solicitors to enable them to conduct appeal work directly, when this is appropriate and as was intended by the reforms.

The issue has certainly been a talking point during various meetings I have had with the profession over the past month or so, whether at the sole practitioner conference in Stirling, the seminar at the Royal Faculty of Procurators in Glasgow or the faculty visit to St Andrews. But many other important topics were raised. The sole practitioner conference, in particular, reminded me that Stephen Vallance, from Harper Macleod Connect, wrote recently (Journal, June 2015, 16) how high street solicitors offer a vital service and commitment to the local community. Never a truer word spoken.

At home and abroad

A series of Society events and meetings in London with members, employers, MPs and stakeholders similarly led to discussions about the crucial services solicitors provide to their clients, while also considering issues around the Scotland Bill, human rights, English votes for English laws, the proposed EU referendum and the promotion of Scottish solicitors’ services across the UK and abroad. Potential opportunities were discussed, which included an overseas firm raising the possibility of making business connections with a Scottish counterpart to support inward investment clients. It was certainly an interesting suggestion – we will monitor developments and offer assistance if needed.

In my experience, the unprecedented rate and extent of change taking place in the legal market is a matter of significant interest – and sometimes concern – to firms large and small, within Scotland and beyond. Whether it is the opportunities presented by the digital era, the heightened expectations of clients, or the use of non-solicitor legal professionals, questions about the role of Scottish solicitors in the changing landscape remain. The Society’s new five-year strategy aims to address exactly these questions, and our first annual plan to implement Leading Legal Excellence will be published this month. The response to our strategy has been generally very positive, but those with any unanswered questions – for instance, about how it relates to their business and work – may be keen to read it alongside this month’s annual plan. I am sure it will help show how we intend to take our ambitions forward.

Now it’s the Client Protection Fund

In other important developments, the operating name of the Guarantee Fund is to change to the Client Protection Fund from 1 November to ensure it is better understood by the public. The decision follows an independent review earlier this year by KPMG, which suggested the current name was confusing and misleading, a conclusion also reached by Sheriff Principal Bowen in a separate review of consumer protection in conveyancing cases. Alongside the name change, we have taken the opportunity to simplify the process for applying to the Fund, with a new application form and guidance. Solicitors should be aware that the name change will not affect their dealings with the Fund.

Finally, congratulations to all who took part in the recent Legal Walks in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The sponsored Magna Carta-themed walk raised much-needed funds for a great cause – local legal advice services, which help to support the most vulnerable in our community. As one of the Edinburgh event’s lead walkers, I can assure readers it was also great fun!

The Author
Christine McLintock is President of the Law Society of Scotland – president@lawscot.org.uk; Twitter: @Christinemclint 
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