Scottish Government proposals which threaten independence of Scottish legal sector “are dangerous and wrong, and must be dropped”
The Law Society of Scotland has said elements of a new Scottish Government Bill on legal services regulation which threaten the independence of the legal profession are “dangerous and wrong”, and must be dropped.
Responding to the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee’s call for evidence on the Regulation of Legal Services (Scotland) Bill, the regulator of over 13,000 Scottish solicitors said many of the reforms were welcome and overdue.
However, the major shake up to regulation could see Scottish Ministers given new powers to intervene directly in the regulation of the legal profession for the first time.
The Law Society said the proposals are unlike anything seen in other western democracies. It warned the changes would undermine the rule of law and could see Scotland shunned as a jurisdiction to do business in.
It has also called for amendments to improve the current complaints system which is slow and complex for both legal professionals and consumers to navigate.
Sheila Webster, President of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “After many years of seeking changes to the 40 year-old existing laws, we believe the Bill presents a real opportunity to improve the way the legal sector is regulated and improve consumer protections. However the proposals which would allow government ministers to intervene directly in the regulation of solicitors are dangerous and wrong. They must be removed from the Bill as a matter of urgency.
“Solicitors are often responsible for challenging excessive use of government power or defending their clients against prosecution from the state. It is essential that they can act freely, with no risk of government interference. That is why the independence of the legal profession is such an important principle in any democracy.
“As it stands, the Bill would introduce sweeping levels of ministerial intervention into the regulation of the legal profession. Not only would this make Scotland a less attractive jurisdiction in which to do business, such a move would damage the global reputation of our justice sector.
“It could result in clients choosing to go elsewhere or multinational firms moving to other parts of the UK. There’s also the risk that autocratic regimes in other parts of the world could use Scotland as an excuse to justify similar controls on lawyers in their own countries.”
While expressing deep concerns about the risks to the future independence of the profession, the Law Society has welcomed proposals which will introduce new forms of regulation over legal businesses and restrictions over who can and cannot call themselves a lawyer to boost public protections.
David Gordon, lay convener of the Law Society’s Regulatory Committee, said: “It is essential that solicitors can continue to advise and represent their clients without fear or favour.
“Equally, making sure people are assured of protection when things go wrong is crucial. The complaints system in particular, is too slow, too complex and too expensive, largely because of the rigid legislation currently in place. It desperately needs reform and we are disappointed that some of the suggestions we made for improvement do not feature in the Bill. We hope this can be addressed as it progresses through parliament.
“The proposals for regulation of legal businesses and the inclusion of new restrictions on who can call themselves a lawyer are positive. We also support plans to make the Law Society’s Regulatory Committee, which is made up of both solicitor and lay members, more transparent and accountable.
“However, we think the Bill could go even further. We have set out a number of points in our submission to the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee and will continue to work with the government and other stakeholders to drive improvement.”