The Law Society of Scotland today provided its fourth annual debate for the Scottish Parliament's Festival of Politics, hosting an event at which four panelists each argued for their preferred way of improving the justice system and the audience voted on which one they favoured.
Skilfully chaired by President Austin Lafferty, who found a way to bring in each speaker whatever the question posed from the floor, the event gave a platform to Brandon Malone (Scottish Arbitration Centre), arguing for more action to develop Scotland as a centre for mediation and arbitration; Susan McPhee (Citizens Advice Scotland), who wanted accessible simplified versions or explanations of the law for the public; family law solicitor Mark Thorley, supporting civil legal aid as the means to ensure access to justice; and solicitor advocate John Scott QC, taking his stand on human rights as the way to improve society.
Not for the first time at these events, however, the contributions from the floor showed that the public's experience of the legal process can fall short of the ideals - rightly - set and championed by those who speak for the profession.
Leaving aside the woman who wanted to air a personal grievance about the handling of her case, speakers included one (supporting the simplifying of the law) who explained that she was acting for herself because she was now out of funds and her lawyer had taken "too adversarial" an approach; one whose experience of arbitration was that it dragged on for years and parties spent whatever funds they had on it (before the 2010 Act, Malone tried to reassure her); as well as the legal columnist who asked whether the panel might favour a bit of "legislative celibacy" (legislation from the Scottish Parliament has been good in parts, was the flavour of the responses).
A pertinent question also asked of Susan McPhee was whether she had costed her proposals. Not apart from the fact that disseminating more information on legal rights ought to mean "preventative spend", she conceded.
What should we make of the event? Clearly the law, frequently dealing as it does with messy situations, can itself be a messy business. Even if the public sometimes fail to understand the reasons for a case or a transaction taking a certain course (perhaps, but not necessarily, the lawyer's fault), it is safe to say that there will be many instances where their experience of the legal process could have been better. Further, they may well not be aware that the law or practice may have changed since their own experience, and bad memories may continue to affect their current choices.
That should not prevent the Society, or anyone else, highlighting the merits of the profession, but it does serve both as a useful reality check and a reminder of the constant need, on the part of the Society, to promote the highest professional standards as are practical, and on the part of the individual solicitor to make every effort to understand their client's aims and be seen to have their best interests at heart.
The final speaker suggested that there might be a need for a body like the Society for party litigants -perhaps a backhanded compliment of sorts to the Society. It illustrates also, in any event, that there remains a perceived need out there for additional help and support, and perhaps a challenge to the profession to come up with alternative ways of supporting people who, for financial or other reasons, feel unable to commit to leaving everything to the lawyer.