Publication this week of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission’s first annual report attracted little media attention. Yet here is a body that deals with sensitive issues, often at crucial times in people’s personal and professional lives. It had a year-one budget of £3.12 million, requiring thousands of lawyers to pay hefty levies and the taxpayer to meet start-up costs. In short – it deserves scrutiny.
Two weeks ago, the Commission published another set of figures – its proposed budget for 2010-11. The headline proposal was to use financial reserves to freeze the annual levy paid by lawyers. The Society responded by recommending that the levy should be cut rather than frozen – to reflect the difficult economic conditions for solicitors and the current level of complaints handled by the SLCC.
The release of the Commission’s annual report (which covers its first nine months) only strengthens our argument about the budget and levy, which has again been forcibly put. In financial terms, the report showed that the SLCC spent only half its budget in 2008-09, with a £1.57m surplus going into reserves, an excessive level given its low ongoing workload and commitments.
Most organisations do not operate with reserves equivalent to half a year’s costs. When levies paid by lawyers in advance are included, a staggering £3.86 million was held in the bank. Notwithstanding the fact that the latter figure is simply a snapshot as at 30 June 2009, money languishing in a bank account helps to get satisfaction for neither the complainer nor the person complained about.
Of 1,217 enquiries that the SLCC assessed during the period, 1,032 were referred back to the Society to handle as complaints. Only 25 complaints went on to be investigated by the SLCC itself. By the year end, just five were being considered for a formal determination.
The annual report recognises that “complaint numbers were significantly lower than the estimated levels”. The flip side is that, in spite of our warnings, those referred back to the Society to handle were significantly higher than the SLCC expected. As a result, there has been an almost impossible squeeze on our resources at the same time as the SLCC is sitting on huge reserves.
The Commission’s budget for next year remains subject to consultation. I suggest three options. Either the annual levy is reduced to provide genuine value for money to hard-pressed solicitors. Or funding is returned to the Society to allow us to handle the vast majority of service complaints, which continue to come our way. Or a mixture of both.
We have had a constructive relationship with the SLCC over the past 17 months, which we wish to continue. If the budgetary consultation process is truly meaningful, I would hope that, as we move towards year three, more heed is taken of the representations we make on behalf of our members and the complainers waiting for a decision.Lorna Jack is Chief Executive of the Law Society of Scotland