Douglas Mill, the Law Society of Scotland's Chief Executive has made a less than convincing appeal for solicitors to retain control over their monopoly of legal services in the face of legal services reform.
Appearing in Monday's Herald newspaper, Mr Mill made the case that the Law Society of Scotland "has been at the heart of the debate for a number of years", alleging through a rather unusually long commentary that the legal profession in Scotland have been major players for the good of both the public & profession in the face of the impending reforms to the legal services market in Scotland.
Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth, as Douglas Mill particularly, has been at the heart of blocking any reforms to the way the legal profession in Scotland does it's business and made its vast profits over the years, at the expense of transparency, accountability, honesty & client care.
Last year, 2006, clients finally got a slight advantage in dealing with solicitors in Scotland, by way of the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, which aimed to bring a measure of independent regulation to client complaints against solicitors amid a swathe of evidence the Law Society of Scotland & Faculty of Advocates had corruptly handled complaints procedures for many years, promoting interests of solicitors over that of the client, and ensuring little or no compensation was ever paid to cover an almost routine culture of theft from clients funds, be it in overcharged fees, theft, or embezzlement, which have become almost as common in the legal profession today as 'taking a breath'.
The LPLA Act 2007, brought about by long campaigns by many, including myself, and several consumer organisations, had a rough ride through Holyrood, with every dirty trick tried by the legal profession to kill it off - from bringing in English Peers such as Lord Lester of Herne Hill - who authored legal opinions against the passage of the bill, to the raging threats of Douglas Mill to take legal action against both the Scottish Executive & Parliament if the LPLA Act was indeed passed - citing the loss of a lawyer's "Human Right" to regulate complaints against colleagues.
The 2007 LPLA Act did of course, did pass the legislative process at Holyrood, although with some amendments brought in by certain MSPs so obviously sponsored by the Law Society itself, some of those amendments very dangerous in their aims, such as a few put forward by Conservative MSP Bill Aitken, who unsuccessfully demanded that fines which the new Scottish Legal Complaints Commission could impose on crooked lawyers be reduced from £ 20,000 to £ 5,000.
Clearly Bill Aitken MSP, who is now the Convener of the sole Justice Committee at Holyrood, is no friend of the general public or victim of crooked lawyers when it comes to reforming the legal profession - and will no doubt resolutely stand to defend his friends in the legal profession from any further reforms which benefit the public far more than lawyers. This this very fact was demonstrated only a couple of weeks ago when Bill Aitken publicly demanded again, that Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill should not follow the OFT's recent recommendations to reform the legal services market in Scotland
Getting back to Douglas Mill's commentary on the legal services debate, there is sadly nothing new in his attitude towards the interests of the client, and certainly he is making no attempt to clean up the Law Society's 'sins of the past' which have seen client after client ruined to protect many lawyers with appalling service & conduct records, who go on to fleece & ruin more clients, unaware of their past. Douglas Mill is happy with that - it's been one of his many anti client policies pursued at the Drumsheugh Gardens HQ of the Law Society over the years, and has brought much profit to a dishonest, unaccountable legal profession, while throwing the interests of the client firmly into the waste bin.
However, the idea of controlled 'debate' publicly put forward by Mr Mill all comes down to this, as he fails to hide even in his own words from the article : "most would agree that it is perfectly acceptable - even welcome - for others to compete with solicitors for business, but not to compete as solicitors."
Open up legal services, but control who becomes a solicitor. What use is one without the other ?
Half measure reforms where the Law Society of Scotland remain in ultimate control are of no benefit to the public, and only seek to preserve the present monopoly maintained by the legal profession.
Mr Mill is trying to steer the debate on open market reforms away from breaking the solicitors monopoly on legal services such as courtroom representation and other long prized money making monopolies exclusive to the legal profession, which have earned many legal firms vast profits over the years - including of course, controlling how claims of compensation against rogue lawyers are handled via the use a solicitor to sue a solicitor route...
This is a form of 'controlled debate'. nothing particularly new to Douglas Mill and the Law Society, who have long blocked any public scrutiny over their function as the governing body of Scottish solicitors, and so-called 'protector of the clients interests' - the latter of which the Law Society of Scotland have performed well.
Last January, when the Law Society's Chief Accountant Leslie Cumming was attacked in a 'hit', organised it seems by Mr Cumming's own solicitor colleagues to thwart investigations into crooked lawyers, Douglas Mill and the Law Society 'High Command' took the opportunity to publicly call for the censorship & arrest of their critics - on the pretext that debate into the Law Society had caused the attack on the now retired Mr Cumming. This was a bizarre, fortunately unsuccessful move by the Law Society, typical of the desperation felt at their headquarters on their lack of control over public criticism.
Controlling debate by arresting those who put forward debate, is more akin to Nazi Germany than Scotland, Mr Mill .... but then debate is a one way street in your world, isn't it ?
Only this past weekend, we saw how the Law Society of Scotland deals with public 'debate' and how it has long operated a policy of censorship over the debate into reforms in an article I covered here : Wikipedia manipulated & censored by Law Society of Scotland in propaganda war against critics & reformers
We recently saw again, how Douglas Mill and his colleagues reacted against the Which? "supercomplaint to the OFT on opening up legal services reform. That reaction, was certainly against the idea of giving any advantages to the public when dealing with solicitors
It is up to us, the public, not to allow the legal profession to control & restrict the debate into how well earned reforms, brought about by the efforts of a wide front of consumer organisations, campaigners, the media, and our own Parliament, are implemented for the betterment of Scottish society.
The legal profession could also do itself some good, by healing the damage it has caused to its clients in the past, as well as voting in a new leadership which will take it away from unprecedented levels of complaints, higher than ever levels of fraud, lack of trust & public disrespect which have been the hallmark of the Douglas Mill years.
Here is Douglas Mill talking through somewhat gritted teeth on the possibility of reforming the legal services market .... a slight stammer seems to indicate a little reluctance to step up to the altar of accountability & free market reforms ?
Herald article follows :
Readers of The Herald could be forgiven for thinking that reform of the legal services market had only appeared on the agenda in the past month or so. Certainly, the flurry of letters to the editor and stories on the news and business pages - in The Herald and elsewhere - might suggest this is the case. Not so for the Society, or a number of others who have been at the heart of the debate for a number of years.
A brief recap may be useful at this point.
The provision of legal services has been a subject of discussion for some time, though it rose to prominence - in the UK, at least - with Sir David Clementi's independent review of legal services in England and Wales, which published its findings in 2004. The same year, the Research Working Group on the Legal Services Market in Scotland - on which I represented the Society, along with the director of law reform, Michael Clancy - carried out a similar analysis. After detailed deliberation, the working group reported last year.
Among its findings, it concluded that intervention was unnecessary and the forces of supply and demand should dictate further changes to the legal services market. The Society raised with the previous Scottish Executive the issue of driving forward the research working group. However, the elections intervened. It is encouraging that the new Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill MSP, has responded to the issue with some enthusiasm, while also highlighting the need to deliver a Scottish solution appropriate for the Scottish marketplace.
Meanwhile, the Department for Constitutional Affairs at Westminster decided to go further than Clementi, outlining its plans for alternative business structures, or ABSs, in the Legal Services Bill. Recognising that any change south of the border would impact on Scotland, the Society remained heavily involved in all aspects of the debate: setting up an ABS working party; having monthly discussions among our Council members; staging question-and-answer sessions at faculty meetings up and down the country; ensuring regular liaison with the Faculty of Advocates and our Big Four firms. Indeed, Douglas Connell, from Turcan Connell, made a constructive contribution by putting forward a positive set of proposals for a form of limited multi-disciplinary practices.
In June, we staged a successful event in London for our members there, with ABSs taking centre-stage. At the same time, we have been gearing up for a major conference, The Public Interest - Delivering Scottish Legal Services, to be held in Edinburgh on September 28. Indeed, the subject of ABSs arises at events beyond our shores, and will likely feature at the Chief Executives of the European Bar Associations conference, to be hosted by the Society next month.
It is also likely to be on the agenda at the International Institute of Law Association Chief Executives conference in Singapore in October. The International Bar Association in Singapore, the following week, will be another platform where ABSs will be discussed.
All this amounts to a considerable effort on the part of the Society. Rightly so, because the issue is of sufficient importance to demand such attention. We should never forget that this does not just impact on the legal profession - we are determining the future of a sector that contributes £1.2bn turnover a year to the Scottish economy, employing 30,000 people. A productive debate on the future of legal services in 21st century Scotland, based on evidence rather than perception, requires the broadest possible input if it is to be of value, which is why we welcome interested newcomers and seasoned veterans alike to the discussion.
The speakers at our Edinburgh conference - which will include the Justice Secretary - can outline some potential business models and give their views on the best way forward. For the Society's part, we are keenly aware of the competing interests involved, which include ensuring access to justice, competition in the legal services market and consumer protection. We are eager to take all those views into account in reaching, as far as is possible, a consensus on the issue.
We understand the justifiable concerns of those who say that high street and rural firms would find it hard to compete with, for instance, a supermarket chain providing legal services, and may be forced out of business.
Yet we also realise that the big firms are competing in a global marketplace. The success of the big firms is something to take pride in - they should not be hampered. Equally, we don't want to affect the availability of lawyers in certain parts of the country or the viability of our consumer protections. It is worrying that it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract young lawyers to small and even medium-sized towns. Despite that, most would agree that it is perfectly acceptable - even welcome - for others to compete with solicitors for business, but not to compete as solicitors.
The solicitors' profession has more capacity for change now than at any time in the recent past. Solicitors are more consumer-focused, better qualified and harder working than ever before. They are increasingly accessible, accountable and successful - we should all be proud of that. I know I am.
But the Society is only one player here. This is a matter for everyone in the solicitors' profession and, indeed, the whole of civic Scotland. Ultimately, the Scottish Executive and Scottish Parliament will make their own judgments on the way ahead and the Society will play its full part in assisting the Scottish Executive and Scottish Parliament to make the right decisions for Scotland and Scotland's legal system.
But whatever happens, the profession's core values of integrity, independence and confidentiality must be maintained.
# Douglas Mill is chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland