Increased spending of 9.6% more than the current year has been agreed by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, in its budget for 2019-20 now laid before the Scottish Parliament.
The resulting increase in the levy on legal practitioners will fall on practice owners, who will be asked to pay £475 compared with £386 this year, while other rates will remain unchanged. The SLCC's rationale is that owners and partners accept the risk of business and receive the profits from legal work, but also have the most control over approaches which could reduce the common causes of complaints. The complaints levy is also rising, from £3,500 to £5,000.
However the spending rise was immediately attacked by the Law Society of Scotland as "unreasonable and wrong", being a third consecutive above-inflation increase in a time of continuing economic uncertainty.
In its report to the Parliament the SLCC attributes the rise principally to:
- an increase in staff numbers, allied to a strategic objective of reducing journey times significantly for all parties, and intended to cope with a sustained increase in the number of complaints, more of which get to the later stages of the system (accounting for £74,000 of the increase);
- the mandatory public sector pay award and contractual pay progression, a 3% salary increase for staff earning under £36,500, and 2% for those earning more;
- two additional management posts created to help deliver the SLCC’s objectives in the coming years, at an initial annual cost of £115,000;
- investment in IT to bring hardware, software and its website into line with the Scottish Government’s "Digital First" and "Cyber- Essentials" strategies and to meet changing business needs stemming from process-improvement work, as well as current accessibility standards;
- additional investment in remuneration "to attract core skills and reduce staff turnover".
Responding, the Society pointed out that the budget for 2019-20 meant there had been "a rise of almost 40% in just four years, with the legal profession and its clients having to fund an extra £1m of spending in that time".
President Alison Atack commented: "It is imperative that Scotland has an effective and efficient body for the handling of complaints against legal professionals. However, it’s important to recognise that overall complaint numbers remain low in the context of the number of transactions carried out by solicitors in Scotland, and despite a rise in the number of complaints in recent years, there are in fact fewer complaints now compared to the previous decade.
"It is hugely frustrating that despite the concerns that we, solicitors and others, including Members of the Scottish Parliament, have raised, the SLCC has failed to listen, instead choosing to impose its third inflation-busting budget and levy on the profession. We can’t see any justification for such an increase, which will ultimately risk higher costs for consumers who need legal advice and services."
The Law Society of Scotland has called for oversight of the SLCC, whose budget does not require to be approved by MSPs or others.
Ms Atack added: "At the moment the SLCC remains free to charge whatever it wants, irrespective of economic or market conditions. The experience of the last few years means there is no confidence in the profession that the SLCC is genuinely open to the arguments presented or to amending their plans in response to its consultation."
The Society also complained of a further fee for regulating licensed legal services providers, which do not yet exist in Scotland. Ms Atack said: "While we have been approved, we are yet to be fully authorised by the Scottish Government as a regulator of these new types of business. However, we paid upfront the sum of £20,000 last year in anticipation of LLSPs being permitted. Having already paid this substantial sum, it’s ridiculous that we are required to pay a further £8,000 when there are not yet any complaints to deal with."