Giving evidence at the Scottish Parliament earlier this week – my first, and perhaps only, session doing so as President of the Society – turned out to be a curious experience. Not because of the nature of the question and answer session about the Legal Services Bill. Not even when proceedings were briefly interrupted to quieten the workman drilling on the roof. In fact, it was because I found myself in unfamiliar circumstances facing a panel containing familiar faces.
Long-time Glasgow magistrate Bill Aitken sat directly ahead, chairing the meeting with trademark ease. Former business partner Robert Brown pressed me and my fellow Society witnesses on conflict of interest. Cathy Craigie, my own MSP in Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, picked up on the issue of what constitutes a democratic mandate for political intervention. From left and right of the horseshoe of desks – as well as the political spectrum – others fired a series of questions. All in all, it was akin to appearing for the first time before a sheriff I had previously known from private practice.
Thankfully, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. As a team, we were given ample opportunity to state our case – the independence of the profession must be protected, access to justice safeguarded, a level playing field created and the dual functions of regulation and representation are best delivered from within the same organisation. Likewise, it was suggested MSPs were appreciative of our informed opinions and technical input. Cathy Craigie summed it up near the start of the session when she spoke of the Society as a respected organisation within Scotland. To paraphrase – when the Society speaks, people tend to listen to what it has to say.
Earlier today, one of our new Council members, Eilidh Wiseman, made a similar observation. She put on record at this morning’s meeting how pleased she had been to discover the tremendous quantity and quality of work that went into a single paper from the education and training team, accreditation guidelines for revised undergraduate and postgraduate stages of training. The same could be said for the work of every other Society department. It is a point regularly made in private but less often voiced publicly.
Of course, there is always work to be done. However, if I was left with a distinct ringing in my ears following the Justice Committee meeting it had more to do with such open recognition of the Society’s important and respected role in shaping legislation than because of harsh questioning from the “bench” – or the workman on the roof.
At the end of the parliamentary hearing, I was reminded by Lorna to wish the committee members a happy Christmas. Ne need for a reminder this time. Merry Christmas and a great New Year to all.Ian Smart is President of the Law Society of Scotland