There isn't much doubt what has caught most of the legal headlines in Scotland this week. Monday saw an attack on the Law Society of Scotland by the 165 solicitors, many of them members of the Glasgow Bar Association, who signed a letter to the press protesting that the Society's continuing dual role has left it unable to defend their interests regarding the legal aid cuts as applied to stipendiary court fees. Every day since has seen vigorous responses from solicitors in other parts of the country, and counters from the GBA.
There is more than a whiff of "Glasgow v The Rest" in some of the comments. The GBA's grievance is that they are being unfairly singled out with the £125 cut to the stip court fee (compared with £30 for sheriff court cases), when only they have the stip court. No one is pretending that the outcome is ideal, but it is regrettable that a package put together in difficult circumstances is being used to exacerbate divisions and stoke bad feeling between solicitors doing similar work in different parts of the country. Who if anyone is coming off worst is less clear cut when factors such as the reductions in travelling fees are taken itno account.
And would it give the GBA any more of a voice if it got its wish over representation? The logic of its position that solicitors should be able to choose who represents them, applied to this kind of situation, is that you could end up with different groups in different parts of the country each arguing their own corner. On the various schemes put forward, Glasgow would presumably oppose those that made the biggest cuts in the stip court fee, while country firms might be more concerned to preserve travel payments, and those in areas not earmarked for PDSO expansion might hold out for the Government's original plan to leave the sheriff court payment alone but open several new PDSO offices. What would you expect the Government to do in that situation but make up its own mind and leave the profession to like it or lump it?
In fact the GBA put in a very full written submission to the Justice Committee, was invited to give oral evidence, and came close to persuading a majority of the committee to support its position. How might it have achieved any more? Only by being involved in the crucial days when the Society's negotiators were in discussion with Government and others to try and mitigate the most serious effects of the cuts being proposed.
The most unfortunate aspect is the extent to which the issue has reinforced the divisions within the profession, and caused attitudes to harden. But allegations of bad faith against the solicitors who carried the load – not, be it noted, Society officials – are pointless and almost certainly wide of the mark. The course of events should demonstrate that, rather than have separate competing interests speaking for it, the profession needs a single representative body in which all significant sectors play their part.
As always, these views are entirely personal and put forward for discussion. I am encouraged by those who have offered unsolicited support over the last few days for recent published comments, and grateful to them. But all opinions are welcome.