Solicitors' "anger and frustration" at proposed budget and fee levels of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission has reached new heights with this year's plans, the Law Society of Scotland said today.
In its response to the SLCC's proposed £40 (12.5%) increase in the baseline general levy, from £316 to £356, the Society questions whether the SLCC – which is funded by the levy on practising lawyers and legal professionals – is providing value for money, and contrasts its proposals with the financial squeeze facing public bodies.
"There is real frustration that the SLCC is coming forward with a substantial increase in its budget at a time when the public sector is facing pressure to control its costs and undertake such strict financial discipline" chief executive Lorna Jack wrote in the response. "We find it difficult to believe that this kind of rise would be suggested or approved if the SLCC was funded by taxpayers’ money instead of a levy on the legal profession."
She continued: "Whilst it is solicitors who fund the vast majority of the SLCC’s spending, consumers should also be concerned as it is clients who ultimately pay through their solicitors’ fees."
With the Society having last month released an independent report findng that some legal aid practices are struggling to survive, Ms Jack states that an increase of the level proposed could act as a "tipping point" for some members and their employers. Another area of "acute" concern is the public sector – although in-house lawyers pay a reduced levy, "huge pressure exists on budgets and every line of cost is open to scrutiny and challenge".
She again calls on the SLCC to focus on its core role, challenging the budget allocated to discretionary areas of work. And as regards that role, she argues that the 12% increase in complaints recorded last year, or even a further 23% in new figures for the first half of the current year, amount to a single figure rise in the weekly total "across what we understand to be a core complaints team of 30-35. Given so many of these complaints do not go forward to full investigation, let alone investigation by the SLCC, we would expect this modest increase in terms of actual work load to be accommodated within an existing budget of over £2.8m".
The Society further argues that increased legal costs should not be a justification, where the SLCC rejected its proposal to present a special case to the Court of Session to resolve issues arising from last year's ruling in the Anderson Strathern appeal; that the Society has said it will not seek expenses if successful in the 19 appeals it has taken in cases involving individual complaints following the SLCC's refusal; that the SLCC had budgeted for costs relating to new alternative business structures in the present year, money which should now be carried over; and that there has been a rise, albeit modest, in the number of solicitors since that on which the SLCC based its budget calculations.
Concluding, the response states: "Finally and more broadly, we would ask you to look again at discretionary spend in areas such as IT, marketing and communications by seeking to use channels already offered by the Law Society and the Faculty of Advocates [such as the Society's regular newsletters] rather than seeking to replicate these. This offers further opportunities to control costs and reduce the proposed 12.5% levy increase."
In a comment the SLCC said it was "disappointed" at the Society's stance.
"The underlying reason for the proposed levy increase is a 12% rise in complaints against lawyers over the past year, many of which are complex cases that take significant resources to resolve", it stated. "After five years of SLCC discounting fees by using reserves we now have no choice but to increase it in order to continue serving the public properly.
"Taken over the most recent five year period the total rise proposed is equivalent to only 5%. For a solicitor in private practice that equates to an annual increase from £332 to £368, a rise of £36 – and applies to around half of those the levy is paid by. For other groups the rise, in cash terms, is much lower. For example, for advocates the rise is only £24 and for in-house lawyers only £15."
It added: "We welcome debate across the profession about how the process can be speeded up and streamlined to improve the experience and outcomes for consumers and lawyers, and the best way to reduce cost would be to work together to improve the process and reduce the common causes of complaints.”
The SLCC board will consider responses received before laying its final budget for 2017-18 before the Scottish Parliament at the end of the month.