By the time you read this, I am sure that some of my solicitor advocate colleagues will have put themselves forward as candidates for the new Council position approved at the last Law Society of Scotland AGM. I know of at least one excellent candidate who has been a colleague for many years on the committee of the Society of Solicitor Advocates (and who I have agreed to nominate). Assuming there is an impressive field of competition, all that remains is for all solicitor advocates to vote.
This welcome development is another step towards proper recognition of the indispensable role played by solicitor advocates in our modern justice system, particularly in the Court of Session and High Court of Justiciary (and the UK Supreme Court). Indeed, even as solicitors, many of us continue to play a substantial role in the administration of justice in our sheriff courts and tribunals. Some of our colleagues grace Crown Office, even at the highest level.
Comparisons are unnecessary to extol our strengths, experience and advantages. We have an informal collegiality, promoted well beyond individual firms, and experienced by those in need of assistance or a word of advice. We have a modern outlook which balances ethical considerations with increasingly (and rightly) demanding clients, informed by training and experience with a focus on getting the best outcome without unnecessary delay and inconvenience.
We understand only too well the demands placed on solicitors, because we are solicitors. Very many firms now opt for a solicitor advocate in High Court cases, as do many clients when their choices are fully explained to them. I, and others, do most of our work for other firms. Some solicitor colleagues retain a historical allegiance elsewhere, a situation one explained to me by saying that recent developments encouraged him to think that the court continues to have an issue with solicitor advocates.
I understand the concern, and certain unsuccessful Anderson appeals may give an unfortunate impression, but I can honestly say that I have never experienced it myself. There is a wider concern about standards but that applies across the board. The court rightly expects excellence from all pleaders. It is still disappointed too often, and we will all have witnessed that, but I believe that we can offer excellence.
Disappointment in standards takes many forms. Sadly, we still hear far too frequently of late withdrawal by counsel whose diaries are kept overfull, seemingly to ensure that they are always employed, regardless of the impact on accused persons and instructing solicitors. As solicitors, we understand what it is like to explain the ensuing last-minute change of key personnel to a baffled client whose confidence is badly dented. The court has rightly given special attention to ensuring client choice of counsel (solicitor advocate or advocate), but so far nothing much has been done to address the few whose grasp for work exceeds their capacity to complete it.
The Society of Solicitor Advocates (SSA) has always emphasised training as key to excellence in advocacy. We are not shy in stating that our combination of experience and training mean that we can offer an outstanding service to anyone who needs representation in our highest courts. The Law Society of Scotland AGM passed a change to CPD requirements for solicitor advocates which, when approved by the Lord President, will mean that 10 of our 20 hours will have to relate to advocacy relevant to the exercise of rights of audience. This can only lead to further improvements.
Much has changed in the 30 years since I first appeared in court, and indeed in the 16 years since I first appeared in the High Court. More change is coming, including further developments in relation to how the best evidence is obtained (and tested) from children and vulnerable witnesses. The SSA aims to be involved at the heart of such changes. In October, for example, I will chair a major Law Society of Scotland conference on such evidence, which is to be addressed by the Lord Justice Clerk and other experts in that field.
Until now, there have been complaints from many that the Law Society is too remote from the relatively small number of solicitor advocates (now around 350). My own experience is that the Society has tried to ensure its knowledge of, and relevance to, solicitor advocates, especially by continuing contact with the SSA. This important relationship stretches back even before the time of the Thomson Report in 2010 (sadly still gathering dust).
The AGM change, mentioned at the start, will assist in addressing any concerns because solicitor advocates now have the opportunity to vote for a Law Society of Scotland Council member specifically dedicated to issues of relevance to solicitor advocates. That person can act as a conduit between our regulator and the SSA, as well as others. Ideally, the successful candidate (I have not yet seen the list) will have substantial experience of the practice and politics of solicitor advocacy. Another voice for solicitor advocates, and hopefully an especially attuned pair of ears. I look forward to working with them.
I urge all solicitor advocates to vote – doing so could not be easier (as long as you can remember or find your LSS login details). I also ask you to consider joining the SSA, if you are not already a member. Together, we can seek more of a say in our own future, as well as that of the administration of justice. While membership of the College of Justice seems to have been fixed a few hundred years ago, my view is that we are, in effect, honorary members and should simply act as members anyway – perhaps in another few hundred years, another stone tablet will be carved to reflect that modern reality.John Scott QC is President of the Society of Solicitor Advocates