Those of you who have children with a certain type of imagination may be aware of Terry Pratchett’s novel “Only You Can Save Mankind” (thoroughly recommended, by the way). There is a subtitle, which is rather interesting: “If Not You, Who Else?”
I couldn’t help thinking of that when I read the articles by Vincent McGovern and John Scott on Referendum 2. If not the Law Society, Who Else?
They have a point. If the Law Society is not going to be responsible for promoting the interests of the profession, who will? Both Vincent and John know the insurmountable practical, logistical and philosophical problems involved in trying to set up any kind of national “trade union”. Some within the profession are very keen on this idea, but most aren’t that committed. Most of the profession simply want to be left alone to get on with what they do for a living. The bar associations and faculties? Be serious. If any of them could or did represent the interests of the profession nationally, they’d have a huge majority of practising certificate holders on their membership rolls. In any event, what may be important in Glasgow isn’t necessarily what’s important in Edinburgh (and vice versa), and may have absolutely nothing to do with what’s important in, say, Dumfries. In some matters it could be argued that the interests of the central belt directly conflict with the interests of areas outwith the central belt.
So, if we didn’t have the Law Society, whose number would the Government call when they pick up the phone to discuss possible changes to criminal procedure, land ownership, or alternative dispute resolution? I know my faculty simply doesn’t have the resources to advise/lobby, for the simple reason that we’re all volunteers and it’s sometimes difficult even to make the time out of a busy working schedule to fit in faculty council meetings. I suspect that most faculties and bar associations are in a similar position and the bigger ones are probably representing people whose situations are radically different from those of us in this neck of the woods.
And will the Government convene a meeting of every faculty whenever they want to consult on a matter affecting the profession or the law? No chance. The logistics would be horrifying. How many faculties even respond in writing to consultations? How many faculties from outwith the central belt could make it to the Law Society’s faculties meeting on ABSs etc? Not terribly many. Would the Government want to try? Those who feel that there is an “us against them” mindset between the profession and the state (and constitutionally, that may be perfectly reasonable or, indeed, required) may feel that it is in the interests of the state to “divide and conquer”.
So what do we do about it?
Speaking up for ordinary members?
The appropriate question here isn’t “Can the Law Society represent us and regulate us at the same time?” Of course it can. There are numerous parallels with other organisations and with management structures. Any team manager is expected to maintain discipline etc within their team, but, at the same time, look out for their team’s interests, back them up and defend them from their bosses. It’s perfectly possible, but how well it’s done depends on the ability of the individual doing the job.
And that is the important question. In the same way as the politicians have been scratching their heads trying to work out what the electorate was saying when they voted last week, the Law Society needs to work out what its electorate thinks of what it is doing. Most of my colleagues in Dumfriesshire are heartily sick of the Law Society, but feel that some sections such as those providing professional practice advice and guidance, and those who are negotiating on legal aid, are doing a pretty good job.
They do not like the whole ABS business. They are fed up hearing about it, think that the so-called advantages are nonsense that will never translate into real benefits to anyone, and feel that the regulatory baggage that comes with it will cause nothing but problems to the profession, the public and the constitutional balance of the country. They feel the Law Society is too ready to surrender to the Government and deeply distrust the motives of those in charge at Drumsheugh Gardens.
My colleagues feel that they have to fight their client’s corner whether it’s popular or not and whether it’s a lost cause or not, and they don’t see why the Law Society can’t do the same. That is why a lot of my colleagues will vote “no” in Referendum 2. It’ll be a protest vote. Not necessarily against the concept of a law society, but against the direction the Law Society of Scotland is taking and its disengagement from the traditional high street profession, which makes up about one third of the Society’s membership and which feels that the Society is pretty hopeless at representing its interests and far too busy pursuing other interests.
So maybe we should learn from the politicians. Maybe one “party” line isn’t always best. Maybe those in the relatively few positions of authority in Drumsheugh Gardens should realise that it is the way they have presented themselves, the Society and the profession which have led to a situation where the very future of the profession’s traditional structures and position in society are now under threat. The Society may want to put forward firm and decisive messages to demonstrate that it can lead the profession, but leaders end up looking pretty stupid if no one follows them.
What the Society therefore needs to do is:
- Recognise that it is our Society, and that if it does not represent the profession, no one else can. If it chooses to ignore the constitutional and social importance of representing a profession whose role is fundamental to a free society, then it is failing the profession, Scotland and the future.
- Recognise that the profession (or certain sectors of it) are not the enemy here. Stop making them feel as if they are regarded as such. Recognise that it has about 10,000 members whose day job is representing the individuals, businesses and organisations of Scotland and that, properly supported, encouraged and represented, they can do a much better job of looking after the public interest on a day-to-day basis than the Law Society ever can. After all, when Scotland has a problem, or comes into contact with the law, they don’t turn to the Law Society or Government to help them. They turn to us.
- Recognise that it does not have a monopoly on good ideas. Ask. Listen. Then act on what it hears. Do what it expects its members to do as a professional obligation. Communicate and Represent. Negotiate when you have to, but argue and fight when you have to, without fear or favour or consideration of any other interests, including your own.
- Recognise that, if the people currently in Drumsheugh Gardens can’t do that, they should make sure they get people who can, then move aside and let them get on with it.
And what about everyone else? It’s all very well moaning, but what are you doing about it? Do you think you can do better? Please try. Nobody needs a special pass or dispensation to speak to their Council member, or even the President. If you don’t trust those in authority to read the runes correctly, that’s what phones, emails and articles like this are about.
It’s up to all of us. Only you can save the profession. If not you, who else?Ranald Lindsay is principal of Lindsay, solicitors, Dumfries Like to comment on this article? Please use the box below. Comments will be checked and then put live.