A new constitution will be presented to members at the Annual General Meeting on 25 March. It marks the culmination of three years’ hard work and a lot of listening to our members.
Our existing constitution has remained largely unchanged since the Society was formed in 1949. Back then, we were a membership of 3,500 solicitors, almost all private practitioners in traditional firms.
The profession today could hardly be more different. There are now more than 10,500 solicitors, with more than a quarter employed in-house. A further third are employed in the private client sector. All practise in a world unrecognisable to a pre-1950 solicitor. We have seen exponential growth in legal services in Scotland and across the globe, driven by an increasingly competitive market, legislative change and huge advances in technology. Just as our profession has responded to such change, so too must its professional body.
The profession is facing many big issues – the economic downturn, public sector cuts and changes to legal aid to name just a few. That is why we need more modern and more flexible rules by which our Society is organised. That way, we can be truly fit for purpose and meet the needs of our members, both now and in the future.
We also have to face up to the reality of the Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010, with its introduction of alternative business structures (ABS). Although the principle of ABS was one that provoked strong views both for and against, the view of the membership on the regulation of ABS could have hardly been clearer. Over 80% of members who voted in last year’s referendum wanted the Society to become an approved regulator of ABS. That is why the new constitution provides some of the framework to make this happen, such as the new regulatory committee.
However, it would be wrong to think this new constitution is all about ABS. The truth is that we would have wanted to change our constitution, even without the Act.
In looking at these big issues, it was right that we listened to you, our members. That is why we ran several consultations, from which we were given valuable input from local faculties and bar associations around Scotland as well as the Scottish Law Agents Society and Royal Faculty of Procurators in Glasgow. Last November, we conducted an online survey and got a fantastic response. Over 1,200 members took part and the results shaped and in some cases changed what was being proposed.
So what does the new constitution do? Well, it makes many of the changes that you, the members, told us you wanted.
A number of those who responded to our consultations, along with 59% of those taking part in the online survey, were in favour of a smaller ruling Council. Although we had initially proposed a larger Council, we listened carefully and the constitution now proposes a smaller Council. However, we have also kept the local constituency link for elected members and allowed co-options to Council, two things that members told us were important.
Many members said they wanted to change the way we run general meetings, not least because of the difficulties we faced with some of our meetings last year. Of most significance is the introduction of qualified majority voting on motions. Two thirds of our survey respondents agreed this was a better way of dealing with motions, rather than requiring a motion to be passed at two successive general meetings. We are also planning to increase the number required to call a general meeting to 50 – the same number as the quorum for the meeting. Again, a majority of members responding to the survey said they were in favour of an increase.
Your elected Council members have debated the revised constitution in great detail for three years. I know because I have been at all the meetings myself! We have listened to what our members have told us. We have also taken the opinion of senior counsel, who believes the proposed new constitution is fit for purpose and achieves a proper balance between the rights of our members and Council’s statutory duties.
However, it is now for our members to decide and it is important for the views of the membership to be heard. I would urge you to attend the AGM in Glasgow on 25 March if you can or to submit a vote by proxy. That way, you can ensure your view is properly expressed in this important debate.
Your Council is proposing that the Society adopt the proposed constitution to allow the Society to move forward and be the flexible, forward-thinking organisation that the legal profession needs and deserves. I would urge you to support your Council and its ambitions.Cameron Ritchie is President Elect of the Law Society of Scotland