Consumer Focus Scotland’s response to Holyrood Petitions Committee gives qualified support for self regulation. IN a letter to the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee, Consumer Focus Scotland have refused to support a public petition which calls for the scrapping of lawyers powers to investigate themselves.
The consumer body even went so far as to give a ‘qualified support’ to the Law Society of Scotland’s powers of self-regulation over complaints, powers which are backed up by the infamously anti-consumer Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980, the Westminster enacted thirty year old legislation which allows Scottish solicitors to investigate & cover up complaints against their own colleagues.
While it is now clear the Law Society of Scotland retains its iron grip over self regulation of complaints with the apparent support from most ‘official quarters’ including the Scottish Government & even some consumer bodies, it is of note solicitors in England & Wales now face a more rigorous independent regulation in the form of the Legal Ombudsman.
Law Society of Scotland’s interests conflict with public. While supporting the retention of self regulation of complaints against solicitors, Consumer Focus Scotland said in their letter to msps there were ‘tensions within the Law Society’s dual role of representing the public & the legal profession, stating that “while often the interests of the profession and the public may be the same, there will be times when they conflict”, the consumer body (which has been scheduled for closure by the Westminster coalition Government) told msps it does not support the aims of a public petition, Petition PE1388, which calls for repeal of the anti-consumer Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 and even went onto say, staggeringly, it felt “self-regulation brings a number of benefits to consumers”, despite most evidence pointing to the contrary.
Consumer Focus Scotland’s submission to the Petitions Committee in response to Petition PE1388 falls broadly into line with two earlier submissions to the Petitions Committee, one from the Law Society of Scotland, which I featured here : Law Society ‘warns’ Scottish Parliament : Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 ‘should not be repealed’ by msps or Scottish Government, and a statement from the Scottish Government who refuse to become involved in the aims of the petition, here : Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 : Scottish Government refuse to repeal Law Society’s self regulating powers of lawyers investigating themselves
The petition, Petition PE1388, originally filed as an e-petition at the Scottish Parliament by a Mr William Burns calls “on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to repeal the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980, end self-regulation, and remove the independence of the legal profession, bringing it onside with true democracy”.
I reported on events surrounding the petition in an earlier article, here : Law Society’s legislative powerbase 'is anti-consumer' as Holyrood to hear petition calling for repeal of the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980
Consumer Focus Scotland welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence on this petition. Both Consumer Focus Scotland and the Scottish Consumer Council (SCC), one of our predecessor bodies, have had significant involvement over many years in the issue of the regulation of the legal profession. Following the passing of the Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010, we are no longer actively working on this issue, however we are happy to provide evidence given our history of work in this area.
Self Regulation of the Legal Profession
Consumers who use solicitors do so at important and often stressful and difficult times in their lives. They place important transactions in the hands of their solicitors, and if things go wrong with that relationship it can have a devastating effect on client confidence. Where dissatisfaction does arise, consumers need to have no doubt about the impartiality of the regulatory system under which solicitors operate.
The Scottish Consumer Council proposed an independent watchdog for solicitors in 1999. 2011 and still no sign of any independence in legal complaints regulation. In 1999, the SCC published research into the experiences of those who had complained to the Law Society of Scotland (‘the Society’) about a solicitor. Half of those who responded believed that their complaint had not been handled fairly. The detailed responses revealed a clear perception that the Society was not impartial in its handling of complaints, appearing to take the side of the solicitor. Following the publication of the research, the SCC campaigned for a number of years for the establishment of an independent body to deal with complaints against solicitors, to ensure that the public has confidence in the legal system. It welcomed the establishment of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (‘the Commission’) by the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007.
While the Society retains its role in investigating conduct complaints, some of its previous practices which created the impression that the complaints process was weighted in favour of solicitors and as such had given SCC serious concern, have been changed and significantly improved. Nevertheless, our preference would be for the Commission to have responsibility for investigating all complaints against solicitors, not just service complaints. The distinction between the various types of complaint is not always clear, even to solicitors, and members of the public cannot be expected to distinguish between them. We have expressed concerns that unless all complaints are dealt with by the Commission, there will continue to be a lack of public confidence in the complaints system.
Other Regulatory Matters
Regulation of the legal profession does, of course, go beyond complaints handling and covers a wide range of work to promote and maintain high standards for solicitors and their clients such as the setting of standards of qualification, education and training. The petition suggests that self-regulation, and particularly the conflict between the Society protecting its members and acting in the public interest, is detrimental to the public interest. While it is clear there is the potential for conflict between the representative and regulatory functions of the Society, we believe that self-regulation brings a number of benefits to consumers. These include:
• The regulatory system will be tailor made for the needs and problems of that particular sector, and will reflect inside knowledge about the realities of that sector
• The benchmarking of best practice over and above the basic minimum requirements
• Self-regulation is quicker and less costly to put in place (and adapt to changing needs) than legislation.
However, our support of self-regulation by the legal profession (other than for investigation of complaints) is qualified. The SCC produced a good practice guide on effective self-regulation, which made clear that one of the key principles of a credible self-regulatory scheme is independent representation on its governing body.
We have regularly expressed concerns about the current levels of independent representation on the Society’s Council, believing these arrangements to reflect the interests of a membership body, rather than a regulator in the public interest. Our position throughout the passage of the Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010 (‘the 2010 Act’) was that if the legal profession is to remain self-regulating (or co-regulating), a change of governance structure (of both the Society and the Faculty of Advocates ) is required to instil public confidence in the regulatory functions of these bodies.
We therefore fully supported the establishment within the 2010 Act of a regulatory committee of the Law Society of Scotland, with at least 50 per cent non-solicitor membership and a non-solicitor convenor. We believe creating a regulatory committee with significant non-solicitor involvement gives the Society the opportunity to demonstrate clearly that it is acting in the public interest in carrying out its regulatory functions. We would also note that the 2010 Act requires the Society, so far as practicable when exercising its regulatory functions, to act in a way which is compatible with the regulatory objectives outlined in the Act. These include protecting and promoting the interests of consumers and the public interest generally and promoting access to justice.
The independence of the regulatory committee will be an important tool in ensuring public confidence in its regulatory functions and we were pleased that provisions were inserted into the 2010 Act to ensure that the Society’s Council must not interfere unduly in the regulatory committee’s business.
The provisions of the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 (as amended), which set out the Society’s role in the regulation of solicitors, provide an important consumer protection. It is critical that there is a robust regulatory framework in place to protect consumers should things go wrong. While we have been critical in the past of the Society’s regulatory regime, we believe the changes being introduced by the 2010 Act should lead to increased public confidence, transparency and effectiveness in the regulatory process. This Act is not yet in force, however, and we believe it is important that an opportunity be given to demonstrate whether these changes do lead to such improvements.
For this reason we do not support the petition’s suggestion that the Scottish Government should repeal the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 to end self-regulation of the legal profession. Should this restructuring of the Society’s governance arrangements and the application of the regulatory objectives not act to improve public confidence in its regulatory functions, however, we believe the dual regulatory and representative roles of the Society should be reviewed.
Tensions in the Law Society’s Dual Roles
We do, however, have some sympathies with the issues raised by the petition, particularly in relation to the tensions that may result from the Society’s duties in relation to the profession and the public. As detailed within the petition, by virtue of section 1(2)(b) of the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980, the Society has a duty to promote the interests of the solicitors’ profession in Scotland, and to promote the interests of the public in relation to that profession. While often the interests of the profession and the public may be the same, there will be times when they conflict.
While the changes to the membership of the regulatory committee outlined above will enable the Society to more clearly demonstrate it is acting in the public interest, we believe there also requires to be significant non-solicitor involvement in the Society’s representative functions. In a press release issued by the Society in March 2010, it outlined examples of its ‘representative’ functions, including several which have a clear consumer or wider public interest.
Law Society of Scotland’s Master Policy was revealed in an independent report to have caused consumers to have committed suicide. One such example is tendering and securing the Master Policy for professional indemnity insurance. The Master Policy provides clients with protection from losses caused by their solicitor’s negligence and therefore is of clear consumer interest. We would also see the representative functions of preparing best practice guidelines and the ‘Find a Solicitor’ tool as key means of the Society fulfilling its statutory duty to promote the public interest in relation to the profession.
We therefore think it is entirely appropriate that the representative functions of the Society be undertaken by a Council which contains non-solicitor membership. We have for a long time maintained that it is a considerable drawback for a professional organisation with a statutory responsibility to promote the public interest that its decision making body has no non-solicitors among its membership.
While section 132 of the 2010 requires the Society to make provision for the appointment of non-solicitor members to the Council, sections of the original Bill which would have given Scottish Ministers the ability to make regulations specifying the number of non-solicitor members on the Society’s Council were removed at Stage 2, following concerns that this could be perceived as compromising the independence of the profession. While we expressed some concern about removing these provisions, we acknowledged that the Society has publicly committed to appointing 20% of its Council membership as non-solicitors.
Although we would prefer this figure to be 50%, in keeping with the provisions relating to the Society’s regulatory committee, this represents a significant improvement on the current position. We believe these are important and necessary changes in order for the public to have confidence in the Society’s role of promoting the public interest. It is our understanding, however, that any proposed changes to the Society’s constitution are subject to approval by the profession at the Society’s Annual General Meeting in March 2011. Should the profession not accept a minimum of 20 per cent non-solicitor membership on the Society’s Council, we believe there would be merit in the Scottish Parliament revisiting this issue.
Readers can find out more about the Law Society of Scotland’s Master Policy and the havoc it has caused for consumers, to the point some have committed suicide, in an earlier article here : Suicides, illness, broken families and ruined clients reveal true cost of Law Society's Master Policy which 'allows solicitors to sleep at night'
An excerpt of the earlier article reported :
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."
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." yet it appears msps do not care, as long as they are able to sleep as easily at night as their Law Society sponsors.
A campaigner speaking to Diary of Injustice this morning said he felt Consumer Focus Scotland could have said more with regard to the way many people have been treated at the hands of the Law Society of Scotland’s complaints system, but he accepted there was little appetite among msps on the Petitions Committee to do anything for victims of the legal profession.
He said : “MSPs are just not interested in doing anything positive for consumers of legal services in Scotland on the complaints & regulation front. They either fear or are already bought off by the Law Society of Scotland’s lobbying powers and the many other arms of the legal profession which they prefer to keep as friends rather than actually do something for us ordinary folks.”
A Holyrood insider speaking to Diary of Injustice this afternoon indicated there was little prospect of the Petitions Committee or the Scottish Parliament ever considering a repeal of the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980.
He said : “Petitions which concern the Law Society of Scotland and the legal profession’s handling of complaints are effectively binned before they are even opened by the PPC for consideration.”
Citizens Advice Scotland are yet to send in their requested response to the Petitions Committee.