The Law Society of Scotland, as the professional body for Scottish solicitors, is their representative body. We have a number of committees which are solely concerned with ensuring that our members’ views are expressed, and we have a seat at the table on discussions involving negotiations on issues such as legal aid.
Equally important though is the role the Society plays in representing the public interest with regard to the profession.
This is very much the role of the Society’s Access to Justice Committee, which exists to promote access to the justice system for the public.
The committee’s remit has been set out as identifying barriers to access to justice and working either alone or with others to identify or implement solutions. The committee’s work will involve monitoring the supply of publicly funded legal assistance across Scotland and encouraging greater co-ordination of services. It will also look at identifying opportunities to promote pro bono work and build the Society’s relationship with law centres, Part V solicitors and other advice centres.
Additionally it will examine how a range of funding sources for and providers of legal advice can be encouraged.
It will be essential for the committee to work with a number of organisations such as the Scottish Government, Citizens Advice, SLAB and others, as well as with the Society’s own committees including the Civil Justice Committee, civil and criminal legal aid teams, Mental Health & Disability Subcommittee, the Equality & Diversity Committee, and those dealing with human rights and discrimination.
This is totally distinct from the role of the Society's legal aid negotiating teams, whose purpose is to represent solicitors and to negotiate with the Scottish Government and SLAB on their behalf, to ensure that solicitors are fairly paid for the job they do. It is fully acknowledged that there has been an erosion of the rate of pay over the past decade, and under the current economic climate we know that there will be increasing pressure on the public purse. That is why there needs to be a distinct group which can present robust arguments on behalf of practising solicitors.
The negotiating team has won important concessions from the Government in recent months around the police station duty scheme, and has during the course of many discussions made clear to both the Government and SLAB that their proposals were unacceptable to the Society and its membership. Without the representations made by the Society's negotiating team these concessions would not have happened.
It’s clear from its prescribed remit that the Access to Justice Committee has a much wider purpose – that of looking at how people access the justice system wherever they live, whatever they do and whatever their financial situation is. It is important that all those who are involved in providing legal advice and the funding of legal advice are involved. That is why the committee has been pulled from such a wide cross section and includes those from the third sector, private practice and both the Government and SLAB – they have a very clear interest in maintaining proper access to justice in Scotland.
The strength of the Access to Justice Committee is precisely due to the mix of its membership and the inclusion of solicitors who not only have expert knowledge of the delivery of legal advice and how it is funded, but a professional interest in ensuring that access to the justice system is maintained for the Scottish public, so it's surprising to see some members of the Society questioning the standards and professionalism of their fellow solicitors.
It is important that the committee, in consultation with our members, politicians and other key stakeholders, tackles the issues involved, makes informed and constructive contributions, and pushes for innovative and practical solutions which will see an improved justice system for those who need it. We cannot pretend that legal aid and state funding will be able to provide all the answers. However they have an important role to play and should not be dismissed from any discussions, as we need to stimulate genuinely thoughtful debate and avoid rhetoric.