A number of issues that have come up this week are worth flagging up and, hopefully, prompting some response.
Squeeze here to save
Scottish lawyers feeling sorry for themselves at the prospect of a further squeeze on legal aid (8% budget cut promised for 2011-12 despite the extra demands of the post-Cadder era) should at least be grateful for small mercies – they have ben spared the sort of axe wielded by Kenneth Clarke south of the border, which is about to take twice that percentage out of a budget already capped at £2.1bn for some years now.
Dire warnings are understandably being given about the effects on vulnerable groups, as whole areas of law are set to be removed from the scope of legal aid, along with an across-the-board 10% cut in civil and family fees for those cases that remain, and an asset threshold of £1,000 (including property equity) above which a contribution will be payable.
The Scottish cut will be painful, but at least has a chance of being achieved without structural damage to the system. There is, I am told, a window of opportunity between now and early new year for representations to be made as to where money could be saved, before any necessary regulations have to be drawn up and laid before the Parliament. Lawyers should regard it as the chance for some imaginative thinking. Any advance on the Access to Justice Committee's proposal to break up the Scottish Legal Aid Board?
Life's infinite variety
The case of the grandmother spared a minimum five-year jail term for possession of a wartime pistol that she kept after finding it in her late father's effects, because she managed to persuade the appeal court of the "exceptional circumstances" of her case, does highlight the danger of Parliament adopting too prescriptive an approach to sentencing matters. Indeed one or two newspapers today are using it to berate the Labour Party at Holyrood for it support for mandatory prison for carrying a knife. Strange, because it seems to me that the Conservatives at Holyrood have been equally vociferous in support of such a measure. But I agree that they should all take the message to heart.
Making votes count
Elect the President of the Law Society of Scotland by popular vote of the membership? It could be done, and it could work. But before taking any decision it would be worth studying the experience in this respect of the Law Society of England & Wales of the late 1990s, which was not a happy one and if I recall correctly, led to bitter internal disputes from which the Society had not fully recovered by the time the Clementi process started up. Let us at least avoid the same fate.
Another tough choice
Yesterday's suggestion by the Law Society of Scotland that solicitors' practice rules might be changed in the wake of the Lloyds panel announcement, so that the same solicitor should not act for both borrower and lender, will have caused a stir. At first sight it seems like a drastic response to a decision that, while unwelcome and difficult to justify given Lloyds' statements over the past few months, affects a minority of smaller practices. But I can see the thinking that it might enable such firms to continue to provide a conveyancing service on a more level playing field with their bigger cousins.
Whether it is a lesser evil than continuing to battle against lenders' proposed cuts (this must be at least the third since last year) is an interesting question for the profession to address. How much would it inconvenience clients in terms of time and money? What about the much-vaunted ethics of the Scottish profession and the low number of cases of malpractice in relation to loans? Or is it best to raise the practice rule stakes and at the same time show solidarity with those most at risk from panel cuts? Comments on this, and the rest of this week's topics, below please!