Bill alarm

SNP ‘seeking more power over legal profession’

Lawyers want to retain independence under the reforms

SNP ministers are being accused of trying to control the legal profession by undermining the independence of the profession from the state.

A new Scottish Government bill will see the Law Society continue as the regulator of Scottish solicitors, with additional powers to act to protect the public interest.

However, the Law Society has warned against new proposed powers allowing Scottish Ministers to intervene and direct regulators.

President of the society, Murray Etherington said: “Some aspects of the proposed Bill are deeply alarming.  One of the most important roles of the legal sector is to challenge government on behalf of clients and hold it to account.

“The proposed new power allowing Scottish Ministers to intervene directly in regulation risks seriously undermining the independence of the legal profession from the state.  This is clearly unacceptable and needs removed from the Bill by the Scottish Parliament as the Bill progresses.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur said: “At the very point the party of government is being investigated by the police, SNP Ministers seem intent on increasing their control over the legal profession.

“The regulation of legal services needs to be modernised to better serve both the public and the profession.

“However, as it stands this bill grants unprecedented powers for ministerial meddling.”

The Regulation of Legal Services (Scotland) Bill would for the first time, make it possible for complaints to be made against those who provide legal services to the public but who are not regulated.

The appeal process for complaints about poor service will be simplified in line with an ombudsman approach helping to make the system more accessible and affordable.

Legal duties would be placed on the profession’s current regulators – the Law Society of Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates and the Association of Commercial Attorneys – to be more transparent and accountable in their regulatory work.

They will be required to protect the principle that consumers should be treated fairly at all times and have access to a range of legal services which are affordable and suited to their needs.

Government Ministers will also be able to launch a review of the regulators and require them to make improvements or impose financial sanctions if they fail to regulate in the public interest.

It will be easier for legal firms to go into partnership with other types of professionals such as accountants to provide shared services.

Minister for Victims and Community Safety Siobhian Brown said: “By ensuring Scotland has a forward-looking legal regulatory framework, we will promote competition and innovation while ensuring that consumer interests are safeguarded.”

Mr Etherington accepted that much of the existing legislation on regulation is now over 40 years old and is “simply unfit for today’s modern and diverse legal sector”.

He said: “This is why we went to the Scottish Government almost a decade ago, asking for change. The complaints system in particular needs reformed to make it quicker and simpler for the benefit of all involved. There is also a chance to better protect consumers from unqualified providers of legal services, especially when things go wrong.”

David Gordon, the non-solicitor convener of the Law Society Regulatory Committee said: “The new legislation provides a chance to build on the huge progress made over the last few years.  Our independent regulatory committee has already shown the value in having non-solicitors at the very heart of the Law Society. 

“This has helped ensure solicitor standards are high and that complaints numbers low. Nevertheless, we know we can do more in terms of the committee’s transparency and accountability and the Bill provides an important framework to help make that happen.

“The legislation is also an opportunity to expand our public interest powers and allow us to step in at an earlier stage when things go wrong.

“We think the Bill could go even further than is currently proposed, especially in terms of how our complaints are handled, so cases are dealt with more quickly for the benefit for all involved.

“However, we need to avoid hard-wiring too much detail into the Bill which will only restrict our ability to adapt and evolve as the market changes.”

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