Freedom, security and justice come highest in Scottish solicitors' concerns about the impact of Brexit on the law and legal practice, according to a survey on behalf of the Law Society of Scotland.

Research carried out by Ipsos MORI found that 96% of respondents cited these three factors as important in the UK Government’s withdrawal negotiations with the European Union.

Ensuring consistent application of the law, along with recognition and enforcement of citizens’ rights were also ranked as important by 94%; 90% said immigration, residence, citizenship and employment status were important, and 84% ranked the economic impact of Brexit on solicitors and their continued professional recognition within the EU as important issues for the Society to prioritise in its work.

The research findings showed ongoing concern about threats to the sustainability of the legal aid system. Across the wider profession, 80% of all respondents – up slightly from 78% in the previous year’s survey – believed that the Scottish Government’s policy on legal aid risked undermining access to justice for the poorest in society, and 77% backed increasing legal aid rates.

Protecting legal aid funding was a particular issue for high street law firms, with 60% of high street solicitors saying protecting the legal aid budget and representing solicitors working in legal aid should be a high priority for the Society. This reflects the independent report, The Financial Health of Legal Aid Firms in Scotland, prepared for the Society and published earlier this year which showed that some firms are carrying out legal aid work at a loss and are at serious risk of being unable to offer legal aid work in the longer term.

In line with previous years, the annual, in-depth telephone survey of more than 500 respondents showed solicitors believed the Society’s regulatory functions should be its top priority.

The vast majority, at 88%, rated the Law Society’s intervention in firms where a critical failure has been identified as important. Other key areas for regulation included inspecting firms to ensure compliance with accounting rules (74%); setting standards for solicitors and updating practice rules (70%); and, investigating conduct complaints against solicitors and prosecuting cases before the discipline tribunal (66%).

Overall, the majority of respondents, at 63%, were optimistic about the future of the profession. The survey respondents were also broadly positive about the work and functions of the Society. There was wide support for the Society continuing to represent, support and regulate the profession at 93%, while 85% (up from 79% the previous year) agreed it was an effective regulator and that membership of the organisation had global recognition as a rigorous and valued professional accreditation.

Society President Eilidh Wiseman commented: “In many ways, the profession has remained fairly consistent in its views. For instance, previous surveys of our membership have shown that our regulatory role is regarded as our most significant function and, once again, those areas of our work were deemed the highest priorities.

“However, it is clear that responding to the impact of Brexit and other key political issues – particularly on legal aid policy – are also considered important priorities by solicitors from across all sections of the profession.”

She added: “The findings are largely positive and the consistently high figures for the Society’s performance suggest that, while there is always more for us to do, we are largely meeting the needs of our members and providing the services and support they are looking for.”

For other findings from the survey, see the article in the March Journal