Only a few days after the release of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission's investigation into the claims process against solicitors, harsh evidence is beginning to emerge of the human cost to clients, where suicides, illness (some resulting in death), family break ups and huge financial losses are the horrific consequences sustained by members of the public who have tried to make claims against the Law Society of Scotland's 'Master Policy' insurance scheme, touted by the legal profession as protecting lawyers and clients but which the ground breaking report released by Manchester University School of Law on Monday reveals “is simply designed to allow lawyers to sleep at night.”
Suicides, illness, family breakdown, loss of homes, loss of livelihood were all identified by interviewees as being directly associated with members of the public’s dealings with the Law Society & Master Policy. During the research team's investigation of claims against the Master Policy, team members were told of suicides which had occurred due to the way in which clients of crooked lawyers had been treated by the Law Society of Scotland and the insurers who operate the Master Policy protection scheme for solicitors against negligence claims. Quoting the report : "Several claimants said that they had been diagnosed with depression; that they had high blood pressure; and several had their marriages fail due to their claim. Some had lost a lot of money, their homes, and we were told that one party litigant had committed suicide."
Law Society officials linked to suicide of client who claimed against the Master Policy. The suicide of one client who had dealings with the Master Policy, is apparently linked to senior officials at the Law Society of Scotland itself, who, when approached by the client to handle a complaint against his solicitor who had made major errors in handling legal business, recommended to the now deceased client he approach a well known firm of solicitors to sue his original solicitor and pursue a claim against the Master Policy for negligence. However, what the client did not know was the law firm which the now promoted Director of a department at the Law Society had recommended he approach, actually represented the Legal Defence Union, which exists to defend solicitors against both claims & complaints from clients, and who are involved in defending solicitors against over two thirds of the thousands of complaints made annually against lawyers by members of the public in Scotland.
The client, a farmer and co owner of a business, went onto unknowingly engage the law firm recommended to him by the still serving senior Law Society official, however, unsurprisingly, little or no progress was made over a lengthy period of time on the client's claim against the Master Policy, which in itself, caused severe stress and depression to the client and his family.
Matters reached the stage where the law firm, recommended to the client by the Law Society itself had done little on the case, and offered no hope of a just & fair resolution to the huge losses caused by the client's original solicitor, one evening, not long after yet another unsuccessful meeting with his solicitors, the client in question had reached a point of such depression, he committed suicide at home using a shotgun, leaving his widow & children. Several days after the client’s suicide, the same Law Society official who had recommended the law firm which had done nothing to proceed the deceased client's claim and take the original 'crooked lawyer' to court, wrote to the widow of the victim and callously informed her she had two weeks to make a complaint to the Law Society or she would be time barred.
The case itself, was investigated by the then Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman Linda Costello Baker, in 2001, who found the Law Society of Scotland had failed the deceased client and ordered they re-investigate the complaint. The Law Society then proceeded to investigate the complaints again, however reaching the same conclusions, which prompted the widow of the deceased client to return to the SLSO, Ms Costello Baker, who again investigated in 2003 and judged the Law Society had failed once more.
At least two other suicides directly associated with clients dealings with the Master Policy are known, where in both cases, clients appeared to have been put under intolerable pressure, delay, deceit and intimidation by lawyers, the Law Society itself, and the insurers to the Master Policy, that the result of the entire process was to cause the claimants to end their lives after breaking under the strain of dealings with the apparently deadly Master Policy insurance scheme.
Further excerpts from the Manchester University report into the Law Society's Master Policy & Guarantee Fund show the intolerable strain clients who attempt to claim against their 'crooked' solicitor have to endure : Claimants "described being intimidated, being forced to settle rather than try to run a hearing without legal support, and all felt that their claims’ outcomes were not fair. Some claimants felt that they should have received more support, and that this lack was further evidence of actors within the legal system being “against” Master Policy claimants. Judges were described as being “former solicitors”, members of the Law Society – and thus, against claimants. Some described judges and other judicial officers as being very hostile to party litigants."
One direct quote from the report, depicts a claimant, who was forced to become a party litigant : "I keep fighting cases, and they keep coming at me, and now I have become ill. But they still keep coming at me. They threw me out onto the street, I couldn’t get my medication, I’ve got nothing, I was homeless, ill, sleeping in the car. Now I am appealing. But I can’t get a solicitor. They are just shutting me down…. My health has been damaged, they kill you off. It's a proven fact. All of us have stress related problems after years and years of stress."
One client who had fought a nine year battle with the Law Society of Scotland and the insurers to the Master Policy over a multi million pound negligence claim which ultimately failed said : "The way that claims against crooked lawyers are handled in Scotland is criminal. The Law Society and the insurers will stop at nothing to ruin a client's life if they dare try and raise a claim for damages against their lawyer."
He went on : "I lost my business and then my house after the legal firm which was supposed to be acting on my behalf against my original solicitor, sued me for legal costs of over £72,000 after nine years of allegedly trying to take the case to court and then the whole thing coming to nothing. I found out that the law firm I took on to represent me against my original solicitor who ruined my business, had been working against me from the very start and to make matters worse, they are I hear going to merge with the law firm of my original solicitor now that my case is out of the way."
"My wife left me, took my children, and I now have little hope of ever working again. I am shattered and have been diagnosed with depression, but the solicitor I originally complained against has a good life, is an outwardly respectable member of the community, but in reality is a thief who embezzled tens of thousands of pounds from my business, and ruined my business just to make sure he could buy up the bankrupt parts for himself which is what he actually did."
He ended by saying : "If anyone asked me for advice on how to deal with a solicitor in Scotland, I'd say stay the hell away from them and even if you have to use one, do not get into a trusting relationship with them simply because if anything goes wrong, as it probably will, they will end up as your opponent in the blink of an eye and from then on your life will be made a living hell."
A solicitor I asked for comment today said :”While I must express my sympathies to the families of clients who have apparently committed suicide over their dealings with the Law Society and the bad apples among us, we as solicitors are as much a victim of the Master Policy and the Law Society as are the clients. Not one solicitor to my knowledge has even seen a copy of the Master Policy but I do know someone who once asked for a copy and was refused, then was given a sharp rebuke for even asking to see it yet we are forced to pay annually into the Master Policy if we want to continue practising law in Scotland.”
He ended by saying : “The Master Policy is all about giving the Law Society of Scotland control over the legal profession and the public. Get rid of the Master Policy and the Law Society while you’re at it, allow us as individual firms to arrange our own insurance cover, and you would see a very different, more positive legal services market in Scotland.”
Consumer Focus Scotland welcomed the findings of Dr Melville & Professor Stephen’s report. Today, Consumer Focus Scotland issued a statement welcoming the findings of the report into the Master Policy & Guarantee Fund, saying : “We welcome this preliminary research into the Master Policy and Guarantee Fund. Although based on a small sample, it provides useful qualitative evidence that the current system lacks clarity for both consumers and the legal profession. We welcome the recommendation that additional research is required, which we hope can further explore and build upon the initial findings from this report.”
The Law Society of Scotland refused to work with the Scottish Consumer Council on an investigation into the Master Policy in 2003 & 2004. However, it transpires from this week’s report that Consumer Focus Scotland in its previous incantation as the Scottish Consumer Council, who carried out several large investigations into problems with the Scottish legal profession, wanted to carry out an investigation into the Master Policy in 2003, however attempts were thwarted when the Law Society of Scotland refused to take part. An excerpt from Dr Melville & Professor Stephen’s report reads : “Consumer Focus in 2003 and 2004 wished to carry out desk-based research on the Master Policy. They sought the co-operation of the LSS of Scotland which was refused. Consequently the research was not undertaken.”
One large scale report undertaken by the Scottish Consumer Council took place in 1999 when the SCC’s Complaints Against Solicitors report was released. This week’s Manchester University report refers to the earlier SCC investigation as follows : “Consumer Focus Scotland has not specifically considered either the Master Policy or the Guarantee Fund, although it did state that professional indemnity insurance arrangements and complaints procedures needed to be put in place in order to facilitate the alternative business structures within the legal market. In 1999, Consumer Focus Scotland conducted a study on Complaints about Solicitors, which surveyed over 1200 people who had used the Law Society of Scotland’s complaints procedure during a one year period. During this research, Consumer Focus Scotland was contacted by a number of claimants who raised concerns about the Master Policy.”
Which? also welcomed the research findings but expressed concern over the Insurers restrictions on the research team who were denied access to important data. Also today, a spokeswoman for Which? issued comment on the Manchester University report, and, while welcoming the findings of the research team, concern and criticism was expressed that the Law Society refused to hand over important data or a copy of the Master Policy itself to the research team. Which? said :“We welcome the research but are obviously disappointed that the Law Society did not provide the researchers with access to the Master Policy as part of their work. However hopefully what was gleaned will provide a platform for other work to come in this area.”
So, at the end of the day, as the Manchester University report of this week reveals, “Thus, the Master Policy is essentially an insurance scheme intended to provide professional indemnity insurance coverage for solicitors.The purpose of the Master Policy, the simple answer is to allow solicitors to sleep at night. It provides professional indemnity insurance cover for firms."
SLCC’s Chair, Jane Irvine. What therefore, is the SLCC going to do about this and just how many members of the public have to get ill, or even die to protect a ‘crooked lawyer’ and the Master Policy, before something is done ? Jane Irvine, when asked for comment on these matters, said : “As you are aware, the research was commissioned by the SLCC and carried out by Manchester University School of Law. One of their undertakings was to conduct key informant interviews and the people who came forward were assured their own details would be treated in confidence by the researchers. These conditions have not changed.”
Ms Irvine continued : ”The SLCC is unable to comment on the individual interviews. However, the independent research is central to defining how we develop our role of oversight of the Master Policy and Guarantee Fund. In terms of the report, the experiences of the people who came forward to be interviewed were significant to the quality of the research. The information given by all those who assisted the researchers is valued by the SLCC and it is essential to the development of our oversight role.”
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has so far not returned requests for comment on Monday’s report …