I had hoped it would be a reasonably straightforward matter to report on the main points of the Justice Committee's stage 2 sittings on the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill, but it isn't as simple as that.
The key issue of the Guarantee Fund was a particular case in point this week. The minister, Fergus Ewing, moved an amendment to allow any licensed provider under the bill to be covered by the fund currently administered by the Law Society of Scotland. This is opposed by the Society, which wants to be able to regulate anyone who might make a claim on the fund. Liberal Democrat spokesman Robert Brown had tabled competing amendments to require anyone seeking to be an approved regulator to establish their own fund, or equivalent.
There was a debate, the Government amendments were defeated – and then the committee just moved on. The Brown amendments, seemingly, were neither moved nor withdrawn, and presumably the committee will have to come back to the subject before it finishes.
Likewise, on the other big issue of the day, whether to adopt the Society's preference that external investment be capped at 49%, majority ownership and control remaining with solicitors alone or with other regulated professionals, the minister said that if it was passed, he would seek to add a clause that the Government could vary the precentage limit by affirmative order. The amendment was duly passed by a majority, as I predicted might happen in the light of last week's session – but no vote was taken on the minister's further proposal. So I'm afraid I can't tell you whether the Government has succeeded in winning this potential route to allowing majority external ownership, though convener Bill Aitken said he had been persuaded – which would be enough to carry it on a casting vote.
Hopefully the picture will be clearer by the time the committee finishes in a fortnight's time, though of course there is always the possibility of a subject being revisited in the full chamber at stage 3, as Labour member James Kelly said he intended to do with percentage ownership.
But returning to the Guarantee Fund, the question must be finely balanced. All members were agreed that some such arrangement needed to be in place. Mr Brown, who is not a fan of there being multiple regulators, asked whether somebody should be a regulator if it could not establish a fund, and thought it "totally bizarre" that other regulators should be able to tap into the Law Society fund.
The minister on the other hand said that no other option was considered workable, that the Society administered but did not own the present fund, which was a creation of statute, and that given that claims on the fund usually arose from small practices, it might be beneficial to the fund to increase the contributing practices to include licensed providers regulated by others.
With a cap likely to be set on claims on the fund, and the 51-49% limit now in place, there is still a debate to be had as to the best way forward.