The Society's February Council meeting, for the second year, was enlivened (compared to many Council meetings, at any rate) by an appearance from the Justice Secretary. Mr MacAskill briefly set out his stall on some current hot topics before taking questions from the floor for the remainder of his 45 minutes or so.
In some respects, perhaps the key ones to his audience, his performance was a reprise of the previous year. On legal aid, on court closures, on support for widening access to the profession, there was sympathy, and a willingness to talk, but there is no more money, nor can much hope be offered for next year or the year after. He made the point, fairly, that legal aid is not going the way of England & Wales, where whole areas of law have been left unprovided for, and did at least acknowledge that the point would come when it would be “untenable” to cut the budget further, while refraining from saying when that might be. And a decision will be made on contracting “very soon”, though he has apparently not yet made up his mind.
Two members from seats affected by court closures spoke from the heart about the likely effects, and the strong feelings locally that concerns of ordinary solicitors were not being listened to. But the answer was that hard decisions had to be made, Linlithgow had survived losing its court, the sheriff clerks remained of the view that they could cope, and planning was for the Scottish Court Service, which had regard to the integrity of the system.
There is little point in saying much about corroboration, though it featured strongly in the questions. The day after a performance in the Parliament the tone of which has drawn some criticism from within his own ranks, the Justice Secretary was not about to announce any further concessions beyond the safeguards to be proposed by the Bonomy working group. Speculation has been current since the debate that Mr MacAskill's days in the post could be numbered. That seems to me somewhat wishful thinking. He may have lost the confidence of much of the legal profession, but it will take more than that to force a reshuffle.
One final point he made is that the Government does indeed want to be able to deal with a single body representing solicitors, even if there are divisions of opinion. On that issue, given how hard it is for the national organisation to win concessions, what chance would a diversity of local groups have?