I did not expect the Law Society of Scotland's Access to Justice Committee to lead a quiet life under recently appointed convener Mike Dailly, and the past week or two I have certainly not been disappointed in that.
A fortnight ago the committee came out with a plan to effectively dismember the Scottish Legal Aid Board and move most of its administration to a reformed Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, while making lawyers responsible for assessing clients' financial eligibility and collecting their contributions. This with a view to making major savings in admin costs in order to protect frontline services. Whether at the behest of his colleagues or not, Board member Paul McBride QC responded with a blast in the Daily Record this week against putting lawyers in charge of their own payments - prompting an instant response from Mr Dailly that this was not what the committee was talking about at all, if only the Record had cared to check, and a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission for good measure.
Mr McBride's simile ("like putting Homer Simpson in charge of a doughnut factory") may have been better suited to tabloid headlines than as a serious contribution to the debate. But it would be a pity if the substantial issues raised by the proposal were lost to sight in the smoke of battle.
One is that the two bodies, SLAB and SLCC, currently perform very different functions, so the scope for efficiency savings by bringing them together is not an inevitability. The implications for premises, and senior management, would have to be worked through, as well as the issues that would arise from asking solicitors to apply the means tests.
Fundamental also is the question of funding. SLAB is currently paid for from the public purse; the SLCC by an annual levy on individual solicitors together with any fees levied for adjudicating on particular complaints. Even assuming an agreement with Government that any new Board/Commission would be part publicly funded to reflect the legacy SLAB functions, there must be a risk of cash strapped Finance Ministers turning the screw in future years to shift more of the burden onto the profession. Would that be a price worth paying?
And what about the nature of the new body as part funder and part regulator? With its quality assurance schemes (including peer reviews) and other investigatory powers, the Board is able to amass considerable inside knowledge of the way legal aid firms handle individual cases. Would such knowledge compromise the ability of a merged body to then act as impartial adjudicator of a complaint against an individual firm, or at least to be seen so to act?
These points are only offered as a starter for discussion. The committee's proposals are as yet only in outline and some "detailed re-modelling" is promised. Its aim of protecting services while saving administration costs is laudable, as is its willingness to think outside the box in so doing. The Society will want to debate the matter further before adopting any policy, and solicitors will certainly have their own views on whether the Board should continue in its present form.
Are the points made here valid? What others should be taken into account? What do you think should happen? Please post your views.