Friday's Law Society of Scotland Council meeting saw a new departure in the shape of a visit from the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill.
In a half hour goodwill appearance, Mr MacAskill gave a brief opening address emphasising the Government's appreciation of the Society's input to proposed legislation and anticipating some areas of concern to his audience, and then took questions for the remainder of the session.
It will come as little surprise to hear that these covered legal aid, access to justice, criminal law reform, student funding on the Diploma, and the dominance of the Scottish Parliament by a majority Government, along with special interests such as licensing boards.
Much of what the Cabinet Secretary said could be summed up as "There is no more money". He faced budget restrictions but constant demands from many quarters for additional spending. He reiterated his desire to retain a holistic legal aid system rather than exclude whole areas of work from legal aid as in England, but was unable to indicate a point, when the question was put directly to him, at which he would hold the line and say there shall be no more legal aid cuts. Similarly there was no prospect of a change in the Government's position on Diploma student support – though this is really Education Secretary Mike Russell's remit. In short, he had hard decisions to make, just as (he was sure) many firms in private practice had as well – who had ever foreseen redundancies happening in the profession?
Some other points did come up. If Mr MacAskill is to be believed, there is "no grand plan" to expand the PDSO – but he will do "what is necessary to protect the system", for example to support the police station duty scheme. On court closures, he will "back the Lord President in the hard decisions he has to make" (noting that "the Apocalypse hasn't happened" since Linlithgow Sheriff Court closed, and that he gets complaints about the "dismal" facilities in some courts). He also recognises that licensing boards are of varying quality and wants them to get together more, but while not ruling out structural change at some point, says the new system is still settling in.
The Government is still working to bring in alternative business structures as soon as it can, but has not yet cleared all the hurdles.
On corroboration, he said no more than that it would be decided by Parliament, and there were those who did want to abolish it.
He surprised some listeners with an "absolute assurance" that no plan was about to be unfolded on legal aid contracting, though he is committed to looking at it. (SLAB have said publicly that it has been asked for information on the range of options.) Certainly the Society has been expecting some announcement in the near future.
What did the visit achieve? One would not expect any great surprises or revelations from such a setting, nor are many people's opinions likely to have been changed by what they heard. Still, one should not criticise the attempt to engage, on either side, and while the cynical may dismiss the visit as no more than a PR exercise, Council members did at least take the opportunity to make the profession's voice heard. With Government, that guarantees nothing, but it would be foolish to forgo the chance.