You might have thought that there would be relatively little controversy over the general principles of the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill, now being examined by the Scottish Parliament's Justice Committee.
It does after all follow directly from the Scottish Government's mandate to the Law Society of Scotland and Faculty of Advocates, following the steer given by the Office of Fair Trading in response to the Which? super-complaint, and the respective schemes put to it by the professional bodies in response. In the Society's case this followed a full consultation open to the profession and the public, and a subsequent debate and vote in AGM.
Nevertheless there clearly remain issues that divide practising lawyers, or lawyers and consumer groups, and the official reports of the committee's evidence sessions to date make interesting reading.
It looks from these reports as if the Justice Committee has done its homework, and is primed to press those appearing before it to justify their position. The consumer bodies appeared to be caught somewhat short for evidence to support their oft-repeated assertion that fewer restrictions on provision must be a good thing for consumers. The Society had a bit of a grilling on the involvement of members in its consultation and AGM, given that relatively few actually took part, notwithstanding the length of the process. The Scottish Law Agents Society, which now opposes alternative business structures (ABS), was quizzed as to why it did not canvass its members' views earlier in the process. And so on.
I have sometimes wondered whether there is very much point to the stage 1 process at Holyrood. The main issue on which committees have to report to the Parliament is whether they agree to the general principles of whatever bill they are scrutinising, which does not take you very far in considering whether the bill as presented should be allowed to go further. However, committees can flag up weaknesses in a bill, points which they believe call for further explanation or justification from the minister or other presenter, etc, and if this part of the process has a value, it must depend on the thoroughness with which the committee undertakes this task.
It will be interesting to see therefore what line the committee takes at the end of the day, and in particular to what extent it accepts the reservations expressed perhaps most clearly by Professor Alan Paterson over the regulatory model proposed; and whether, for example, it accepts the Society's line that people find ways round the present restrictions, therefore it is better to remove these and regulate the resulting forms of business, or the opposite point of view that those same circumstances make it unnecessary to lift the restrictions.
And it is, I think, reassuring to a degree that the committee is making the effort to get to grips with the important issues of professional independence and public protection, abstract though the arguments must often appear. I hope other MSPs will follow its lead in this respect.