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MSPs say ministers ‘wrong’ to try regulating law

Sheila Webster: widespread concern

Scottish Government plans to control how the legal profession operates were wrong and risked undermining the rule of law, according to a report from a cross-party committee of MSPs.

The Law Society of Scotland says the Regulation of Legal Services (Scotland) Bill, as currently drafted, gives Scottish Ministers sweeping new powers to intervene in the way lawyers work, including approving rules on law firms and even regulating lawyers directly.

In its report, the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice (EHRCJ) Committee said it shared these concerns and said “there is no place for Ministerial powers in the Bill and these should be removed.”

In recent weeks and in response to widespread criticism, the Scottish Government has promised to amend the Bill and scale back its plans.

However, the committee said it was “unable to meaningfully reach a conclusion on whether or not amendments at Stage 2 will resolve these issues satisfactorily due to an absence of detailed information on what is going to be proposed.”

Sheila Webster, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “This major cross-party report from MSPs shows how wrong the Scottish Government was to try and control the way the legal sector is regulated, a position not seen in any other western democracy.

“It is so often lawyers who are responsible for challenging the government on behalf of their clients and protecting citizens from the excessive use of power by the state. The current Bill risked fatally undermining the independence of the legal sector and the rule of law. It’s why you saw such widespread concern, from Scotland’s most senior judges through to the International Bar Association.

“The Government’s recent promises to significantly amend the Bill and scale back these new political powers are welcome. However, we still need to see the specific amendments before we can be certain they address the wave of criticism and concern expressed over the last year.”

David Gordon, the non-solicitor convener of the Law Society’s Regulatory Committee who gave evidence before the EHRCJ committee, said: “Most of the law on regulating the Scottish legal sector is now over 40 years old. It is why the Law Society has spent most of the last decade campaigning for reforms which would better protect the public and allow the legal sector to thrive.

“It is unfortunate that so much of what is good in this Bill has been overshadowed because of the unexpected and unexplained attempt by Scottish Minsters to get so many new powers of control. With the government now committing to changing the Bill, we can hopefully move on and focus on the things which really can make a difference.

“Improving the currently slow and complex complaints system, a stronger system of regulating legal businesses, greater powers to allow regulators to step in at an earlier stage; these are all important prizes to be won from this long overdue legislation. We need to get on and deliver them.”

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