The independence of the solicitors’ profession was further strengthened in the fourth and final session of the Justice Committee’s stage 2 consideration of the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill yesterday (29 June).
Following representations by the Society and others, the Minister for Community Safety, Fergus Ewing, withdrew the provisions in the section of the bill that would have allowed the Scottish Government to influence the composition of the Council and set the criteria for non-lawyer membership of the ruling body.
He said: “Some concerns were raised about those powers by members of the legal profession and the Law Society, with suggestions that they might threaten the independence of the legal profession.” He added that a successful Government amendment would “remove a provision that was the source of some considerable objection”.
A further amendment was passed to ensure that the functions of a new regulatory committee are kept separate from the Council. Mr Ewing said: “We consider it vital that all regulatory functions be carried out by a body with significant lay membership to ensure independence and a focus on the public interest.”
A proposal by James Kelly to set up a separate representative council at the Society was rejected. Mr Kelly argued: “It is essential to have a split between regulation and representation, and the public should have a voice on the regulatory committee. The important democratic principle of lawyers being represented by lawyers is also correct and will protect the industry and the legal profession.”
However, Robert Brown defended the dual role, saying: “The tension seems to be creative, not destructive.” The minister added that the proposal was “entirely unnecessary”. The amendment was defeated.
Other successful amendments agreed that ministers should be allowed, at some future point and following consultation with the Society and others, to change the percentage of non-solicitors or regulated professional ownership of licensed legal services providers. The Society believes that there needs to be a clearer specification under which ministers might act.
Further talks are due to take place on a range of issues and committee convener Bill Aitken said: “The Government and the Law Society in particular will require to have a fairly significant dialogue over the summer.”Katie Hay is a law reform officer at the Society