Cabinet Secretary for Finance John Swinney intervenes in investigation after Law Society attempt to dictate remit & scope of inquiries. John Swinney MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, has been forced to intervene in a bitter exchange between officials of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission and members of the public participating in the first independent investigation to be carried out into compensation claims made against Scottish solicitors, after it emerged the SLCC's Chief Executive, Eileen Masterman had agreed to hand out copies of the research directly to the Law Society of Scotland, but had refused similar requests from members of the public whose views were being sought for the research.
I reported on the first ever independent investigation into claims made against Scottish solicitors in an earlier article, here : Scots public urged to take part in Commission's survey on claims made against lawyers with Law Society's Master Policy & Guarantee Fund
SLCC Chief Executive Eileen Masterman refused to hand over copies of research but Law Society to get a copy. The Commission's Chief Executive, Eileen Masterman who received requests from the Law Society of Scotland for copies of the research even before the project began, agreed they would receive the research in a pre publication format, while denying similar requests from participating members of the public, citing among other reasons that the public "were not stakeholders in the research or the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission", despite the fact that £2.5 million pounds of taxpayers money has been poured into the Commission, which has mostly went on officials huge salaries of up to £1350 a week and expenses perks of SLCC board members of up to £350 per day.
However, the Cabinet Chief Mr Swinney was brought into the issue by concerned constituents he has represented in the past on issues relating to claims & complaints against solicitors, over fears the Law Society were attempting to undermine the Commission’s research into claims against crooked lawyers, long known to be stage managed by the legal profession with clients achieving little or no success and most cases even being prevented from reaching court.
It was as we all know, Mr Swinney’s Holyrood confrontation with Law Society Chief Douglas Mill, over claims of corruption within the Master Policy which led to Mill’s downfall from the Society’s top position, which I reported on in early 2008, here : Breaking News : Law Society Chief Executive Douglas Mill who lied to Parliament, pursued 'personal vendetta' against critics - to resign
Mr Swinney has expressed deep concerns to the Commission over the research, and it can be revealed today the Cabinet Chief has written to the SLCC's Chief Executive Eileen Masterman, reminding her that millions of pounds of taxpayers money has been spent on the Commission, making the Scots public "stakeholders" in ‘not only the research but also the organisation itself’.
Mr Swinney contends (and has told SLCC Chief Executive Masterman in no uncertain terms) that members of the public participating in the research should also be given copies of the report at the same time the Law Society receives their copies, to ensure no alteration of the results of the research, which the Law Society is said to 'fear the worst' over, due to constant scandals involving client claims against crooked lawyers which often involve dirty tricks, delay and subterfuge from the Insurers who run the Master Policy on behalf of the Law Society of Scotland.
Law Society of Scotland Director of Standards Philip Yelland asked for discussions on research before publication. In leaks from sources at the SLCC today, it can also be revealed the Law Society of Scotland have demanded exclusive access to the Master Policy research before it is published, and have also demanded discussion with the Commission, over fears that revelations from what is the first independent investigation ever to be carried out into financial claims made against 'crooked lawyers' in Scotland could be very damaging for the legal profession, the insurers and the Law Society of Scotland itself.
Leaked emails from Law Society to SLCC demanded discussion of research before publication. Law Society Director Philip Yelland in his email to the SLCC Chief Executive Eileen Masterman asks : "There is the issue of the production of the final report and how the Commission would intend to use this. It is acceptable that in view of the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act at some stage the report will become public and it would be helpful at this stage to know whether it would be the intention of the Board of the Commission, once the report is produced, to discuss the matter with the professional bodies before formal publication or whether the Board would intend to discuss the final report with the professional organisations proper to any publication or indication of the steps that might be taken."
Earlier paragraphs in Mr Yelland's emails to the Commission were attacked by SLCC insiders, who branded them “little more than fishing attempts by the Law Society to gauge the scope of the SLCC's research into the Master Policy, with a view to interfering in its terms & remit to save face and stop the public getting to know the truth."
Mr Yelland's fishing questions : "It is noted clearly that the Commission will want to speak with participants from the professional bodies (presumably the Guarantee Fund and Insurance Committees or members from these Committees) and it is also noted specifically that there is reference to a desire to speak to individuals. Is there any intention for the research to speak with individual solicitors about their views on the Master Policy and Guarantee Fund ?"
Yelland went on to enquire "So far as the Focus Groups are concerned, it is intended that there will be Focus groups involving members of the profession and mixed groups with members of the profession and the public ?"
Professor Alan Paterson told by SLCC Chief Exec. Masterman that Law Society were expecting the worst on investigation of claims against crooked lawyers. Eileen Masterman responded by saying she would hand over copies of the research prior to publication, and in an email to Professor Alan Paterson, a board member of the Commission, & Professor of Law at Strathclyde University, Ms Masterman said : " ..I would be happy to give them (the Law Society) a preview of the report before publication (and I think we'll have to publicise it fairly quickly after the Board have had an opportunity to consider it) but I don't want us to be under any immediate pressure about how, or if, we're going to take it forward."
Eileen Masterman continued to Professor Paterson saying she thought the Law Society might feel they were in trouble with the research : "I get the impression that the Law Society of Scotland are expecting the worst and trying to second guess what that will be."
A legal insider today accused the Law Society of attempting to dictate the terms of the Commission's ground breaking research, and claimed officials at the SLCC "felt vulnerable to demands from the Law Society of Scotland for the inevitable edits of the parts of the research that the profession would not wish the public to read".
He went on : "There is an intense feeling of distrust within the Commission's staff that the Law Society of Scotland is constantly looking over our shoulders at what we are doing, and in reality, little is progressing at the Commission without the cooperation or say so of the profession's governing body."
Justice Secretary MacAskill is blamed by legal insiders for allowing the SLCC to fall victim to Law Society bullying. Many insiders blame the Commission's problems on Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, for taking a back seat while the Commission was being formed, and allowing the Law Society to run the appointments process to the Commission, which has been widely condemned as "full of sleaze" by many consumer groups & law reform campaigners.
Current conditions in the workplace at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission seem to have deteriorated so much that some members of staff have indicated they feel so ashamed of news reports & public criticism of the Commission, they now feel they cannot admit even to their friends to working at the SLCC, for fear of being told they “are employed at a front organisation set up to protect the legal profession more so than deal with complaints from members of the public.”
Cabinet Chief John Swinney, ‘deeply angered’ by difficulties at SLCC. Mr Swinney, while continuing to watch developments, refused to comment on the further difficulties at the embattled Scottish Legal Complaints Commission. However sources close to the Cabinet Secretary admitted Mr Swinney was deeply angered at the way the Commission was handling its role as the independent regulator of complaints against Scotland legal profession which it was assigned in legislation Mr Swinney himself as an MSP campaigned hard to be passed into law as the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007.
A source close to Mr Swinney this afternoon said : “John has worked so hard on this problem to see much of his effort twisted around by the Law Society and incompetence from others in Government who are responsible for protecting the public interest and seeing to it what was billed as a clean up of the legal profession’s poor complaints handling process became reality.”
“As the situation goes, there has been no clean up of anything and the SLCC in its current format is widely recognised as being unfit for purpose.”
I think we all feel that way … and certainly there now has to be some reforms of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission to bring it closer to the public & consumers of legal services, while being more accountable & transparent in its operation. Ultimately, the SLCC will most probably needed to be regulated itself.