Community Safety Minister Fergus Ewing tells SLCC : Give lawyers a £1.5m refund or else we take away your independence. FERGUS EWING the Scottish Government's Minister for Community Safety has demanded the independent Scottish Legal Complaints Commission use its massive £1.5m surplus to lower the annual complaints levy which solicitors have to pay each year to cover the Commission’s costs of investigating complaints made by clients against their lawyers. The move has surprised many, as under the terms of the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, the SLCC is independent of Government and the legal profession.
Law Society of Scotland lobbied Scottish Government to reduce complaint levy which funds investigations against ‘crooked lawyers’. The unprecedented move by Mr Ewing, comes after the Scottish Government was lobbied directly by the Law Society of Scotland to intervene in the budget levy dispute with the SLCC, forcing a quick, quiet reduction of the complaints levy, after law campaigners and MSPs began to question why the Scottish Government had not asked the SLCC to repay its massive £2m formation costs to the public purse.
Mr Ewing’s direct intervention on behalf of the legal profession, coming just a few weeks after I reported Mr Ewing had announced plans for Ministerial appointments to the Law Society of Scotland’s Council had been withdrawn after some more lobbying from the Law Society, is being widely seen as nothing short of Ministerial interference in an ‘independent’ body, particularly after Mr Ewing apparently issued a threat to review Ministerial powers over the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission if it does not comply with the Law Society of Scotland’s desire to see the complaints levy reduced.
Community Safety Fergus Ewing writes to Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, demands reduction of complaints levy for lawyers. The letter from Mr Ewing to the SLCC, recently released, states : “I note that you have used some of your reserves to offset any increase in the general levy and that is commendable, but I am strongly of the view that this does not go far enough. I understand that this financial year you have generated income of around £2.3m and that your predicted costs of £2.9m are now forecast to be £2.6m. The shortfall between income and expenditure will be met by your contingency fund should that remain untouched and in effect your budget will balance this year. However the surplus finds generated during your first 9 months of operation recorded as £1.5m are likely to remain untouched.”
Mr Ewing continued : “Whilst I recognise that during your initial year of operation the workload and consequently expenditure was difficult to predict, having built up an significant reserve fund in this financial year, it is essential that the Commission takes full account of this reserve in determining the amount of annual general levy and the complaints levy that is reasonably sufficient to meet its expenditure for the next financial year. When the Commission has existing reserves, it must ensure that, taking one financial year with another, the amount of the proposed general levy and complaints levy is reasonably sufficient to meet its expenditure, in particular, any estimated shortfall including for contingencies.”
Community Safety Minister Fergus Ewing threatens a review of Ministerial powers over the SLCC if it refuses to lower the complaints levy. Fergus Ewing continued in his letter to the SLCC’s Chair, Jane Irvine : “I do not think it is sufficient to use these reserves to merely off-set an assumed increase in the proposed amount of the annual general levy for next year. I therefore invite the Commission to give early and serious consideration to reducing the proposed amount of the annual general levy and the complaints levy to ensure that these do not, taking one financial year with another, exceed what is reasonably sufficient to meet its expenditure.“I appreciate that this is important for the SLCC to manage their financial risks and hold some contingency funding and I know that officials here would be happy to discuss how this could be achieved in ways which do no to rely on large reserves. I appreciate also that, as the legislation stands, the levy is a matter for the SLCC to determine, and that Ministers have no powers to order the SLCC to take any particular action in respect of the levy. It is for the SLCC itself to ensure that the level of charge is justifiable, in the light of the demands on it. I trust that you will exercise that discretion appropriately, having regard to the views expressed by consultees.”
Fergus Ewing ended his letter with an apparent threat : “I would wish to give fair notice that Ministers will review the situation following the setting of this year’s levies to see whether any change in the respective powers of Ministers and the Commission is desirable.”
A legal insider indicated the Law Society had decided to push the matter after they had become concerned calls for the SLCC to repay its millions to taxpayers might gain ground, and scupper the chance of solicitors getting a refund on the complaints levy.
He said : "Officials at the Law Society were furious some were suggesting the SLCC repay their £1.8 million start up costs met by the taxpayer and saw a real possibility this idea may gain ground particularly since the Commission is sitting on a £1.5 million cash reserve in a recession where the daily talk is of more cuts to public services.
It has also emerged there are at least four cases in the Court of Session where the Law Society of Scotland are taking legal action against the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission over the Society’s remaining duties to regulate conduct complaints. A legal insider today alleged the Law Society’s lobbying of the Scottish Government under the circumstances of it pursuing the SLCC in the courts “is entirely inappropriate”.
He said : “The Law Society calling in the Scottish Government to intimidate the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission over the complaints levy may well be a tactic connected with the Law Society’s court actions against the Commission, or an intent to disturb the SLCC’s regulatory function investigating complaints against the legal profession, a function which we all are very well aware the Law Society wants back within its grip.”
He continued : “In the light of this incident, there should be a full investigation of Mr Ewing’s conduct and the disproportionate lobbying access the Law Society of Scotland and legal profession appear to have with the Scottish Government. It cannot be that a Minister gets involved to such a degree in what are decisions the law says should be taken independently and without influence from Government”
SLCC Chair, Jane Irvine. Jane Irvine, Chair of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission gave reaction to Communities Minister Fergus Ewing’s intervention on behalf of the Law Society. Commenting on the SLCC budget consultation responses, Jane Irvine said: “In February, we received responses from the Faculty of Advocates, the Law Society of Scotland and comments from the Scottish Government Minister for Community Safety, Fergus Ewing.The Minister’s letter repeated some of the points raised by the Law Society of Scotland with regard to the SLCC reducing its reserves in order to reduce the Solicitors’ Levy. “The SLCC Board has, however, raised concerns at the Minister’s inference to the level of control the Scottish Government may wish to exert over the operation of the SLCC, should our Board decide against reducing the Solicitors’ Levy.”
The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission are facing four cases ongoing in the Court of Session where the Law Society refuse to investigate certain conduct issues. Jane Irvine continued: “The SLCC has endeavoured to clarify for the Minister the rationale behind our reserves policy, explaining that reserves are for unforeseen events and reflect what the SLCC Board considers to be the risks facing the Commission. Every new complaints body faces an early tranche of appeals over the first 3-5 years of its operation as powers are tested, and currently we are dealing with four Court of Session appeals, lodged by the Law Society of Scotland, under which the Law Society infers that they do not wish to investigate these particular conduct issues. We must have sufficient reserves to defend legal actions and to be in a position to balance the strength of the legal profession as it raises appeals against the lesser strength of consumers, who will raise fewer appeals. It is simply not feasible for the SLCC to be acting in a defensive manner when making decisions.“
Jane Irvine continued: “We already know the SLCC is facing significant legal costs and, depending on the outcome of these appeals, we may need to change how the SLCC operates. “This could mean a review of our processes and procedures resulting in the need to substantially increase the size of our Gateway Team which is currently served by ten members of staff.“
The media release from the SLCC concluded by stating : “The SLCC Board will meet later this month to discuss the Minister’s comments regarding the independence of the SLCC from the Scottish Government and the legal profession, the level of reserves held, the implications of reducing the solicitors’ levy, our ability to meet the costs of appeals and our ability to fulfil our obligations to consumers should the Court decision result in changes to how we operate.”
You can read the Response from the Law Society of Scotland (PDF 542 KB) and the Response from the Faculty of Advocates (PDF 72.3 KB) to the SLCC’s Budget for 2010-2011 : SLCC Budget levy consultations along with the letter of Ministerial interference from The Scottish Government Minister for Community Safety, Fergus Ewing MSP, (PDF 506KB)
James Kelly MSP, (Labour) Glasgow Rutherglen. James Kelly MSP, a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee queried whether the SLCC could justify its huge £1.5m budget surplus under current financial conditions. He said : "At a time when budgets are under pressure it is correct that questions are being asked as to why the SLCC need to retain a surplus of £1.5m. If the SLCC are unable to justify this surplus then consideration needs to be given to the steps required to bring the monies back within the remit of the general budget."
Asked for reaction on Communities Minister Mr Ewing’s intervention on behalf of the Law Society of Scotland, a Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "The Minister is entitled to make his views known to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC), and any future changes which might be considered to ensure the SLCC operates efficiently and does not impose unnecessary burdens on the legal profession would ultimately be for Parliament to consider."
An official from a Consumer organisation condemned Mr Ewing’s intrvention on behalf of the Law Society of Scotland while the Scottish Government had refused to help members of the public who had lodged complaints against ‘crooked lawyers’.
She said : “What we now have here is a Scottish Government Minister saying he prefers that lawyers get a multi million pound refund rather than maintain dwindling public services. If Mr Ewing wishes to put lawyers before the Scottish public he should go back to being a lawyer instead of remaining in Government.”
Clearly the conduct of the Communities Minister Mr Ewing amounts to what many will view as Ministerial lobbying on behalf of the legal profession, coupled with a veiled threat of action if the aims of the lobbying (to reduce the complaints levy for solicitors) are not met.
In view of what has taken place, and the information with regard to the court cases involving the SLCC & Law Society of Scotland, which taken together, directly impacts on the ability of the SLCC, an independent regulator which was created by legislation designed to protect consumers from poor legal services, I support calls for a full investigation into the amount of lobbying power & access to politicians the Law Society of Scotland seem to enjoy – lobbying power which is now clearly not in the public interest for the Law Society, or legal profession, to retain …