Final column from Alison Atack: this has been a year of many highlights, and I am grateful to everyone who helped to make it possible

Well, here we are: unbelievably my last President’s column – unless your incoming President, John Mulholland, decides he’s had enough already!

When I look back at my first Journal article from June 2018 and my hopes and aspirations then, I see now that I couldn’t possibly hope to achieve much of it in one year. But that’s what Society chief executive Lorna Jack and her wonderful colleagues do all the time. There have, of course, been many achievements and moments I will never forget.

A recent highlight was the 21st Commonwealth Law Conference 2019 in Livingstone, Zambia. It seemed right on many counts that Scotland should be represented. David Livingstone’s achievements of mapping almost the entire navigation course of the Zambezi, and being the first European to see the Mosi-oa-Tunya (“the Smoke that Thunders”) which he named the Victoria Falls, are remembered with a statue a short stroll from my hotel. With Brexit in mind, if ever there was a time to bond with our Commonwealth colleagues, this is it. I am delighted that Edward Sakala, CEO of the Law Association of Zambia, comes to Edinburgh this month having won a prize from the International Institute of Law Association Chief Executives to experience another law society culture. He chose Scotland because, he told me: “They seem to have succeeded in all ways I want to do in Zambia”.

Reviews and surveys

At the conference, I spoke at a session on Best Practices in Regulation, and gave no apology for choosing something that has dominated my presidency – the Esther Roberton review. I related the potential consequences for the rule of law of her overarching recommendation to create a single independent regulator for all legal services.

Her proposal is not simply a new model for handling complaints, something we believe can be easily streamlined and improved. It would strip all regulatory powers from the Society and the Faculty of Advocates, transferring education and entry standards, practice and ethical standards, auditing and upholding financial and anti-money laundering compliance all to a new inexperienced public body. While we agree with many of Esther Roberton’s proposals, we disagree with this one. I will no longer be President when we receive the Scottish Government’s response to the review, but I will continue to fight for the right way forward.

The other major review during my year was Martyn Evans’ legal aid review. At the end of April we saw the much-anticipated 3% increase to legal aid fees – the first for a decade. This has of course to be part of a wider package of reform. Legal aid provided access to justice in 200,000 cases last year, defending people when prosecuted, unfairly dismissed, or facing homelessness, family separation or a range of other life-changing issues. It is the mainstay of access to justice, but funding is no longer fit for purpose. There has been a 20% cut in fees in real terms in the last decade; over the last five years 20% fewer solicitors are registered to provide criminal legal aid. The Fee Review Panel, set up as a consequence of the review, provides an opportunity to bridge the funding gap.

Another major piece of work completed in my year is the 2018 Profile of the Profession survey. Completed by nearly 3,000 respondents, it provides the most complete picture of career issues affecting solicitors and accredited paralegals since 2013. For the first time it included questions relating to bullying and harassment. The results show the gender pay gap reduced from 42% to 23%. However, there is still much work to be done and we are implementing a 28-step plan to address equality and diversity issues in the profession.

In September, the results of the Journal violence survey were issued. Some of it made alarming reading. Solicitors help people often at extremely difficult times in their lives and it is vital they feel safe while carrying out their professional duties. No tolerance of any threat of violence towards our members or others working in the sector should be the benchmark. We have to engage with members to tackle this issue and support our members.

Special moments

Through the year there have been many happy events, such as our Platinum Anniversary celebrations, a very successful annual conference with Lady Hale as keynote speaker and the first presentation of the Innovation Cup. The Lawscot Foundation is now funding 17 full-time students, all with very harrowing but inspiring histories, while we have also seen several admission ceremonies highlighting the extraordinary future of the profession, the 400th anniversary of the Royal Faculty of Procurators in Glasgow, and its first female Dean, Nicola Irvine. We also celebrated the first 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act and our own Madge Easton Anderson becoming the first woman admitted into the profession.

All in all a spectacular, exciting year. I have so much to thank you for, especially that I was given this opportunity to serve the profession by the Society’s Council, and ultimately the Glasgow constituents, who voted for me and allowed me to complete my legal career in this astonishing way.

Thank you all so much.

The Author
Alison Atack is President of the Law Society of Scotland Twitter: @AtackAlison
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