Law Society of Scotland’s role in complaints now extends to snooping on complainers. THE LAW SOCIETY OF SCOTLAND is now routinely asking clients who complain about their solicitors to give the discredited law complaints self-regulator permission to snoop on the complainer’s own background as well as that of the solicitor identified in the complaint, a policy revealed in today’s publication of the latest version of the Law Society’s own ‘complaints form’, which asks anyone making a complaint about a lawyer to authorise the Law Society to authorise the Law Society of Scotland to contact “any person, firm or body contacted by the Society to provide and deliver any information, files and related papers required by the Society.”
Scottish Legal Complaints Commission give clients a choice to authorise similar snooping powers. Curiously while the Law Society says it requires such a vague, open ended level of unprecedented access to the private lives of consumers before it will complete an investigation into conduct complaints against solicitors - access which apparently includes asking for criminal background checks, medical details and other private information on complainers themselves, the ‘independent’ Scottish Legal Complaints Commission offers complainers a choice to authorise whether or not those it approaches in connection with an investigation can disclose information, documents, files or related papers in order to investigate the complaint. The Law Society offers no such choice and claim they will not be able to complete an investigation without all of its terms being agreed to.
Snooping Complaints Form : Sign this, and you give permission for the Law Society to snoop on every detail of your life, not just that of the solicitor complained against.
A senior official with one of Scotland’s consumer organisations, commented on the Law Society’s complaints form expressed dismay at the wording of several parts of the document, and agreed that ‘Item 2’ on the complaints form in its current wording allowed the Law Society unusual levels of access to the personal details & lives of anyone making a complaint against a solicitor.
He said : “While it may be a case of poor wording, although since this form is coming from the Law Society itself one would expect them to get it right, the terms, after being signed by a complainer would in effect allow the Law Society to approach any individual, any public body, a Police Force, local health trusts, financial institutions etc for information on the actual complainer.”
He continued : “Personally I would have to question why the Law Society would need access to such private information on consumers. If I were put in the position of having to approach the Law Society over a complaint, I would be hesitant to sign the document in its current terms. I would advise consumers to question the wording of this form before they sign it, and ask to see all the data the Law Society gains from the form’s use during their investigation of the complaint.”
Shockingly, it transpires from details leaked by a legal insider, there have been numerous uses of private information apparently engathered by Law Society officials during the course of investigations into crooked lawyers, key information on the private lives of the complaints which has been used during Complaints Committee meetings to sway decisions in favour of the lawyer, quashing numerous complaints, many involving the most serious of offences. In several instances, it appears that Law Society Complaints Committees were even told of criminal background information on complainers, and members were asked to ‘find for the solicitor’ on the argument the complainer’s criminal background was of such bad character it merited letting the lawyer off the hook from the complaint.
The legal insider, citing one example said : “We were told the complainer had a driving conviction for an SP30. I had to ask what that was as I had no idea. I was told "breaking the 30 mph limit". The complaint being considered in that case was in relation to the solicitor making a mess of the complainer's father's will. The solicitor's agent at the committee implied the complainer was of bad character as he had been convicted of the driving offence and we should find for the solicitor. Myself and a lay member said this information had no relevance to the complaint. Even so, a decision was taken to find for the solicitor."
In another instance, a Complaints Committee were informed the complainer had an assault conviction with a suspended sentence. Members were supposed to take this into account even though the complaint being considered related to the solicitor's mishandling of a property transaction. The complaint against the solicitor in this case was also quashed, yet the solicitor in question has faced and is currently facing several more complaints made by other clients.
In another revealing instance, where it appears private medical information on a complainer was gained, either from the use of the form or from the solicitor who was the subject of the complaint, members of a Complaints Committee were told the complainer suffered from mental health issues and was undergoing treatment. Members were told his local NHS trust had confirmed this. A lay member asked why the committee were being told this and who had disclosed the information but his question was not answered. The complaint on that occasion related to contested fees for work the complainer said he had not instructed to proceed.
Law Society Committees have often been the scene of information gathered by Law Society snooping to save a crooked lawyer. The Law Society’s desire to snoop on complainer’s backgrounds is of course, nothing new, as I personally found out in the early 1990’s when I was forced to make a complaint against Borders solicitor Andrew ‘Drew’ Penman of Stormonth Darling Solicitors, Kelso. Thankfully, the Scotsman newspaper, under its previous ownership had reported extensively on the Law Society’s concerted attempts to thwart any prosecution of Mr Penman by using a similar smear tactic session against of false information relating to my bad character (a bad character of publicising the complaint in the Scotsman) as well as Mr Penman’s own marvellously long career in the law, to get Mr Penman off the hook from jointly ruining my late father’s estate with a crooked accountant Norman Howitt, currently of the JRW Group based in the Scottish Borders.
Law Society Chief Douglas Mill stepped in to block court action to reveal Law Society’s misuse of information back in the 1990’s. It was so important to the Law Society of Scotland I was not able to find out exactly what was said at the Complaints Committee and that I be prevented from taking judicial steps to reveal the Law Society’s method of halting the prosecution of Andrew Penman, the then Law Society Chief, Douglas Mill stepped in to block my legal aid application for legal action against the Law Society over its protection of Penman and misuse of information, which was widely reported in the Scotsman again, and later became evidence in two Scottish Parliament inquiries into regulation of the legal profession in Scotland, which eventually led to the creation of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission.
It now appears, from the wording of the current version of the Complaints Form, the Law Society of Scotland are attempting to legitimise their snooping on consumers, by ensuring they get signed permission to do so, thus protecting themselves from the raft of privacy laws now in existence since I had my own battles with the Law Society during the 1990’s …
A client of a solicitor who is currently attempting to file a complaint with the Law Society of Scotland today branded the form an attempt at intimidation to stop people making complaints against their lawyers.
He said : “I think the form is designed to put people off making a complaint. Clearly the Law Society want every single piece of information on you they can get their hands on yet at the end of the day what do they do against the lawyer you are complaining against ? Nothing.”
He continued : “I think the Law Society just want to be able to look into people’s backgrounds to see if there is anything they can use to get the lawyer off the hook. I wont be signing it until they change that wording and give me assurances any information they are using about me I get to know about too.”
Another client who has approached the Law Society over the content & wording of the form has so far been refused an explanation over its terms, from both the Law Society of Scotland and the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission.
The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission have been asked for their reaction to the revelations and the terms of the Law Society Complaints Form. The SLCC were also asked if they monitor who the Law Society approach as per item 2 of the complaints form, and what type of information is engathered by the Law Society. While no reply has yet been received I have been informed a response will be forthcoming, which will be published in an update to this article.
For now, I would advise clients who are complaining against their solicitors to the Law Society of Scotland, not to sign the Law Society complaints form until it is reworded to be more specific in detailing who exactly the Law Society can approach seeking information on consumers.
Also, since the Law Society of Scotland is currently exempt from the transparency of Freedom of Information legislation, clients who make complaints against their solicitors to the Law Society of Scotland should ask to be made fully aware of each & every organisation, body or individual the Law Society approaches concerning their complaint, along with the Society giving to clients, a full disclosure of any information they have gathered on the complaint.
As I note the solicitor who is being complained against (and their legal agent, along with other bodies such as the Legal Defence Union) appear to be entitled to see all the information the Law Society accumulates on a complaint, therefore the client making the complaint should have equal access & disclosure of all information engathered regarding the complaint.
Complaints forms & advice on how to complain from the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission can be downloaded at the following links :