Law Society says lawyers should investigate themselves. A PROPOSAL before the Scottish Parliament calling for views on scrapping self regulation of the legal profession in Scotland - has heard claims lawyers have successfully investigated themselves for seventy years - and that this 'arrangement' should continue.
Members of the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee have now received the views of the Law Society of Scotland , and Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal (SSDT) - who both want to continue the current system where lawyers maintain their own ‘standards’, write their own rules, and investigate complaints against themselves.
The Law Society of Scotland stated in a letter to MSPs - PE1660B and PE1661B: Law Society of Scotland - “the dual role of regulation and professional support has been successfully carried out for almost 70 years”
The Law Society goes on to claim “This issue was considered in depth by the Scottish Government ahead of the 2010 Legal Services Act with a clear conclusion that the model of having a single professional body was right for Scotland.”
However, thousands of complaints a year made against solicitors in Scotland by clients who end up considerably worse off financially after bruising encounters with lawyers even on the most common legal services show the profession’s self regulation model as predominantly dishonest.
The Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal – who were exposed in a BBC Scotland documentary for shying away from striking off serially dishonest solicitors – ‘suggested’ in their own letter to MSPs - PE1660 A and PE1661: Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal - that the Scottish Parliament wait until a two year review is complete before considering the petitions.
The Disciplinary Tribunal said in it's letter to the Committee: "The Tribunal considers that the issues raised in Petitions PE1660 and PE1661 are being considered in the current Review which includes an examination of the legal complaints system in Scotland and an analysis of legal complaint handling in other jurisdictions. Perhaps it would be appropriate to await the recommendations of the current Review before there is detailed consideration of the issues raised in these Petitions".
However, the Scottish Government review referred to by the Disciplinary Tribunal - has already come in for stinging criticism due to it’s dominant complement of vested interests from the legal profession who lobby against any change to the current system of regulation where lawyers investigating themselves.
The letters come in response to petitions being considered by the Public Petitions Committee calling for a radical overhaul of the way complaints against the legal profession are handled in-house by the Law Society and ‘independent’ Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC).
In September, MSPs called for views on bringing Scotland into line with the rest of the UK – where a much greater independent level of legal regulation exists compared to the current Law Society of Scotland & SLCC pro-lawyer regulation model.
Petition 1660 calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to review the operation of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission with a view to making the process of legal complaints more transparent and independent.
Petition 1661 calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to reform and amend the regulation of complaints about the legal profession in Scotland, which is currently delegated to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, by creating a new independent regulator of legal services with powers equivalent to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Legal Ombudsman, Bar Standards Board and Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal which serve consumers and clients of legal service providers in England and Wales.
The move by Holyrood to look at the issue of self regulation of lawyers - comes after the Scottish Government announced a ‘review’ of legal services regulation in Scotland, back in April 2017.
However, the Scottish Government ‘review’ – will not report back until the end of 2018 and with non binding recommendations – and has come in for significant criticism after it was found there was only one consumer related interest among the legal related membership.
When the review was announced earlier this year, former Cabinet Minister & SNP MSP Alex Neil said the review remit should also include judges.
Alex Neil said: “I hope it produces radical and robust proposals. I also hope it covers the judiciary as well as lawyers.”
Mr Neil also called for greater fairness in the panel’s membership, to include members from outside the legal establishment.
Mr Neil added: “I hope the membership of this review panel will be expanded to get a better balance between lawyers and non-lawyers”
A full report on the Scottish Government’s review of legal services can be found here: REGULATED REVIEW: Scottish Government panel to look at self regulation of lawyers - Former Cabinet Minister calls for review to include judiciary, and panel membership to strike ‘better balance between lawyers & non-lawyers’
During the last debate on the two petitions, members of the Public Petitions Committee also agreed to write to the Scottish Government, the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, the Law Society of Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates, Scottish Solicitors' Discipline Tribunal, Citizens Advice Scotland and the Judicial Complaints Reviewer.
If proposals within the petitions go ahead, this would bring regulation of legal services in Scotland into line with independent regulation as practiced in England & Wales.
The full letter from the Law Society of Scotland to the Public Petitions Committee:
Thank you for your letter of 29 September. We are grateful for this opportunity to feed into the Committee’s consideration of petitions PE1660 and PE1661.
As the professional body for Scottish solicitors, we share the petitioners’ desire to improve the regulation of legal services. The Scottish legal sector has evolved considerably since the introduction of the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980, which is the main legislative framework governing the regulation of legal services. We are clear that reform is needed, both to protect clients’ interests and to ensure the legal sector, which contributes so significantly to the Scottish economy, can be competitive and continue to thrive.
We approach these issues with almost 70 years’ experience of delivering robust regulation of the legal profession. As the principal regulator of Scottish solicitors, we take our duty to protect the public interest extremely seriously, a fact demonstrated through the range of activity which we carry out.
First and foremost, we set high professional standards which all solicitors must meet, including a robust route to qualification along with practice rules and guidance which is regularly reviewed. Our highly trained financial compliance team inspect around 370 law firms each year to ensure compliance with our strict accounts rules. In 2015/16 and as a result of these inspections, we raised 17 complaints of our own to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC). Additionally we intervene quickly in firms when things go wrong, ensuring clients know who to contact, where their files are and offering the assurances they need. Even when clients choose to no longer pursue an initial complaint against their solicitor, we will raise our own complaint if it is in the public interest and in order to maintain standards. In total we raise around 30 complaints a year against solicitors to the SLCC.
By setting, maintaining and vigorously enforcing standards, we strive to ensure that consumer interests remain the central focus of our regulatory work and that consumer confidence in the Scottish solicitor sector remains high. A poll of the Scottish public in
2016 indicated that 90% of those surveyed are satisfied with the services provided by their solicitor and 82% would recommend their solicitor to others. That poll also demonstrated high levels of trust in the legal profession as a whole.
The case for change: We recognise that, despite the strong system of regulation in place, further work is needed to improve that system. This is particularly true around the area of complaints handling, where processes need to be simpler and consumer protection stronger. Given the regulatory framework and processes involved are set out within primary legislation, we are afforded little flexibility within the existing system. This is why we proactively approached the Scottish Government in 2015, submitting a detailed paper which set out the case for new legislation to better protect consumers and allow the legal services market to thrive . Our proposals include better regulation of legal firms and individual solicitors to improve standards in addition to a wider regulatory reach over other legal professionals.
This is in response to the dramatic changes we are seeing in the Scottish and UK legal services market. New expectations from clients, new business models, the growth of cross border legal firms and increased technology are all serving to reshape that market. Yet most of the legislation covering the operation and regulation of the legal market is approaching 40 years old and did not anticipate the changes we are seeing today.
Whilst taking forward reform, we also believe it vital to preserve the elements and principles of the current regulatory framework which work well - the independence of the legal profession; a single professional body; independent discipline body. These must be protected.
We were delighted that, in response to our proposals, the Scottish Government established the independent review of the regulation of legal services, now being chaired by Esther Roberton. We believe this offers a real opportunity to develop a consensus on what reforms are required and how they can be effectively delivered.
The complaints system: We note the ultimate aim of both petitions is to urge the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government to review complaints about providers of legal services in Scotland. We share the petitioners’ concerns and frustration in relation to the complex and unwieldy complaints process that currently exists from the existing legislation.
The introduction of the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007 created the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) which opened on 1 October 2008. The SLCC is a complaints handling body which operates independently of the Law Society and Scottish Government. It has important oversight powers in relation to the handling of conduct complaints by the legal professional bodies, including the power of audit in addition to other consumer protection matters. Under the provisions of the 2007 Act, the Law Society retains the responsibility for managing and investigating complaints relating to the conduct of Scottish solicitors.
We regularly engage with the SLCC and enjoy a close working relationship of mutual respect and recognition. We discuss shared matters of concern and ideas for improving the complaints process to the benefit of complainants and the legal profession. We are frequently in discussions with the SLCC and other stakeholders with regard to the various challenges which the 2007 Act raises in relation to legal complaints, in particular the complex processes at the gateway / eligibility stage which result in unacceptable delays.
We believe the whole system for managing legal complaints needs to be changed to make the processes involved easier and quicker for the consumer. We are currently in discussions with the SLCC regarding an interim solution which could be delivered through secondary legislation. This offers the chance to improve the system by speeding up the eligibility stage of the complaints process until such time as more permanent changes can be made.
Given that there is no ability for a complainer to make a complaint on the SLCC’s handling of a service complaint, we strongly believe there should also be independent oversight of the SLCC, particularly as the SLCC perform the oversight functions of the Law Society of Scotland and Faculty of Advocates relating to conduct complaints.
We note that during the Committee’s meeting of 21 September 2017 a number of members referred to the Law Society’s campaign which resulted in many solicitors contacting their local MSPs to express concerns over the increase in the SLCC’s budget for 2017/18. During this campaign, we raised concerns that the SLCC’s budget could not be formally objected to by Ministers or by Parliament. This emphasises the challenge about the lack of effective independent oversight of the SLCC. I enclose a copy of the standard letter which formed the basis for many of the emails sent to MSPs earlier in the year. We would be happy to provide further background information or meet members of the Committee to further clarify the circumstances that led to the campaign and our position.
We have provided some further information on each petition below:
PE1660: The petitioner argues that the existing appeals route against decisions by the SLCC, via the Court of Session, forms a barrier to those who wish to appeal.
We fully agree with this view. We recognise that the concept of pursuing legal action against a public body via the court can be a difficult and daunting process.
The requirement to obtain the leave of the Court of Session can put the appeal option out of reach for the majority of complainers, even where they may have fully justified grounds for appealing. This compares starkly to the situation regarding conduct complaints dealt with by the Law Society. Here, if a complainer is not happy with the way we have handled a complaint then they have the option of taking a ‘handling complaint’ to the SLCC. Whilst this does not amount to an appeal, the SLCC can recommend the matter be re-opened for further consideration if due process has not been followed or the decision lacks reasoning. Furthermore, a complainer can appeal a decision directly to the separate and independent Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal (SSDT).
There is no equivalent process for those complaints dealt with by the SLCC. The only recourse is through seeking leave of the Court of Session. We believe there is a case for reviewing this and hope the work being undertaken by Esther Robertson and her review group will consider this point.
The petitioner also states that the Law Society ‘appears to desire no involvement, nor introduce quality control’ in the SLCC’s handling of complaints’. It is important to stress that the current legislative framework provides us no role of oversight of the SLCC, its processes or its decisions. Even where there may be occasions that we disagree with a service complaint decision of the SLCC, there are no special mechanisms which allow us to challenge or raise this other than the general provision which are available to the general public.
We also note that comment is made in the background notes on the process by which the SLCC lays reports before Parliament for information only. The provisions of the 2007 Act (Schedule 1 paragraph 16) provide that the SLCC must lay their annual report before Parliament at the end of each financial year. This is in addition to the laying before the Scottish Parliament of the SLCC budget by the end of April each year. These are laid for information only and Parliament has no statutory powers to comment on or amend these in any way. As I have already outlined, we do believe that greater oversight is needed of the SLCC and its performance, a fact which came into stark focus during the budget issues earlier this year.
PE1661: Central to this petition is the call for a wholly independent regulator of legal services in Scotland with no ties to the profession.
The Law Society of Scotland’s dual role of regulation and professional support has been successfully carried out for almost 70 years. This issue was considered in depth by the Scottish Government ahead of the 2010 Legal Services Act with a clear conclusion that the model of having a single professional body was right for Scotland.
At the core of any profession is a commitment to provide the best possible service to the consumer while recognising it has a responsibility to act in the public interest in all that it does. The regulation of the profession is the means by which the profession ensures these aspirations are met.
Our dual role is essential in ensuring that Scottish solicitors deliver the highest practical and ethical standards. To ensure we maintain a practical distinction between our two roles, our regulatory function is clearly separated and works independently of our professional support work. That regulatory activity is overseen by the Regulatory Committee in accordance with the provisions of the Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010. This means it is an independent committee. The Law Society Council is not permitted to unduly interfere with the work of the Regulatory Committee, nor with the work of its sub- committees which are responsible for taking specific regulatory decisions. This is all clearly set out in legislation. To strengthen that independence, the Convener of the Regulatory Committee is chosen by the committee and must be a lay member. Our current convener Carole Ford comes from the teaching profession, bringing both an expertise in standards setting and enforcement but also a clear commitment to the public interest. The committee she chairs has an equal number of solicitor and non-solicitor members - another element set out in legislation.
The concept of a single professional body, with both regulatory and professional support functions, is a model seen in other sectors in Scotland and also in other legal jurisdictions around the world.
Here in Scotland, we have the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS), the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). The teaching profession in Scotland recently moved from separate bodies into the single professional body that is the General Teaching Council. There is clear recognition across a number of professions that having a single professional body is the right approach, particularly given the size of Scotland.
Further afield, Law Societies and Bar Associations around the world have dual responsibility for regulation and professional support. These include the Law Society of Ireland, Law Societies in the provinces of Canada and states of Australia as well as bar associations in US states such as California, Florida and Texas. It provides a cost effective, practical, and coordinated professional approach which works in the interests of the consumer.
Nevertheless, we recognise the specific areas of concern which the petitioner highlights. The petitioner’s background information notes how the Law Society of Scotland cannot become involved in the decisions of the independent complaints handling body, the SLCC. If there is concern over the accountability of the existing independent complaints body, we do not agree that the way to correct this is to create a new regulatory body. Rather it would be better to create the kind of effective oversight of the SLCC which I have described earlier, the kind of oversight which the Law Society faces from our own Regulatory Committee, the SLCC, the SSDT and the Courts.
The background notes also assert that over 600 complaints were dismissed as a result of the court ruling in Anderson Strathern vs. SLCC (CSIH 71XA16/15). As a result of the ruling, which affected around 250 complaints already in the system, the Court of Session has now made a further judgment on the way these cases should be dealt with . We are working with the SLCC to implement the judgment which centres on the way the SLCC have categorised complaints.
We have worked constructively and collaboratively with the Parliament and other organisations throughout the passage of the Acts of the Scottish Parliament referred to in the petition background notes. As a professional body which has a statutory duty to protect and further the interests of the public and consumers, we have put forward proposals which demonstrate our commitment to these values.
As I have noted, the Scottish Government appointed an independent group to review the provision and regulation of legal services in Scotland, chaired by Esther Roberton. The Committee may wish to consider contacting the review group regarding opportunities for the public, including the petitioners, to present their views on the complaints process for consideration.
Thank you again for the opportunity to respond to these petitions. If we can provide any further points of clarification or aid the Committee’s consideration of these petitions further, please contact our Legislative Change Executive.
The letter from the Scottish Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SSDT) to the Public Petitions Committee:
Introduction: The Public Petitions Committee met on 21 September 2017 to discuss petitions PE1660 and PE1661. In short, these conjoined petitions call on Parliament to urge the Government to review and reform the system of legal complaints in Scotland by comparing it to the system in operation in England and Wales. The Committee determined to seek the views of various stakeholders including the Scottish Solicitors ’ Discipline Tribunal.
Current system: It may assist the Public Petitions Committee to understand the place of the Tribunal in the system of legal complaints. Complaints against solicitors in Scotland are channelled first through the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC). The SLCC deals with matters of inadequate professional services itself. It refers conduct matters to the Law Society. The Law Society has powers to deal with unsatisfactory professional conduct itself. The Law Society may appoint a Fiscal to prosecute the most serious cases before the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal as professional misconduct. Individuals cannot make complaints direct to the Tribunal.
The Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal: The Tribunal is an independent formal judicial body constituted under statute and subject to the appellate jurisdiction of the Court of Session. The Tribunal deals with complaints of professional misconduct, complaints that a solicitor has been convicted of an offence involving dishonesty or any other more serious criminal offence, appeals stemming from the Law Society’s determinations regarding unsatisfactory professional conduct, and applications for restoration to the roll of solicitors in Scotland. The Tribunal is made up of 12 solicitor and 12 non-solicitor members. At each hearing the Tribunal comprises two solicitor and two non-solicitor members. Hearings are generally held in public.
The sanctions which the Tribunal can impose are censure, fines of up to £10,000, restriction of a solicitor’s practising certificate, suspension, strike off or prohibition on restoration to the roll, and compensation of up to £5,000 for loss, inconvenience or distress if a Secondary Complainer has been directly affected by the misconduct. Every decision of the Tribunal is published in full subject to the terms of paragraph 14A of Schedule 4 to the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980. Occasionally publicity is deferred, for example, pending the conclusion of criminal proceedings.
The Tribunal’s mission statement is to ensure so far as possible that all cases brought before the Tribunal are dealt with in accordance with the legislative framework and the principles of natural justice, bearing in mind the importance of protecting the public from harm and maintaining public confidence in the legal profession. The Tribunal endeavours to deal with cases efficiently and expeditiously. The Tribunal has a duty to be independent, impartial and transparent.
The Tribunal is responsible for the most serious cases of misconduct relating to Scottish Solicitors. Consequently, it deals with far fewer cases than either the Law Society or the SLCC. In the year 1 November 2015 to 31 October 2016, the Tribunal met on 45 days to hear Complaints. 32 new Complaints were received during that year. The Tribunal made 22 findings of professional misconduct and one under section 53(1)(b). The Tribunal made four findings of not guilty and two were remitted to the Law Society to consider as unsatisfactory professional conduct.
PE1660 and PE1661: The Tribunal considers that the system of legal complaints in Scotland can be complicated, lengthy and expensive. To a limited extent, the procedure has been simplified following the Court of Session judgements in Anderson Strathern v SLCC  CSIH 71 and Law Society v SLCC  CSIH 36. However, there are still areas for improvement.
The Tribunal is currently participating in the Review of Regulation of Legal Services; its Chairman is a member of the Review. The remit of the Review is to make independent recommendations to reform and modernise the framework for the regulation of legal services and complaints handling. The Tribunal hopes that this would modernise and streamline complaints handling. The Review’s remit is to focus on the current regulatory framework and the complaints process. Its aims therefore directly cover Petition PE1660 which calls for a review of the operation of the SLCC with a view to making the process of legal complaints more transparent and independent. .
The Review also overlaps Petition PE1661 which calls for reform of the regulation of legal complaints. However, the author of PE1661 calls for this to be done by creating a new independent regulator of legal services with similar powers those held by the SRA, Legal Ombudsman, BSB and SDT in England and Wales. The Tribunal observes that the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal is the direct counterpart of the SDT in England and Wales. Similarly, the SLCC performs a broadly similar though not identical role to the Legal Ombudsman. The Law Society of Scotland’s Regulation Department performs comparable functions to the SRA. The Faculty of Advocates Disciplinary Tribunal and the Bar Standards Board also have related responsibilities. The role of these bodies in the complaints system is included in the current Review and the Review may make recommendations for changes in this.
Therefore, the Tribunal considers that the issues raised in Petitions PE1660 and PE1661 are being considered in the current Review which includes an examination of the legal complaints system in Scotland and an analysis of legal complaint handling in other jurisdictions. Perhaps it would be appropriate to await the recommendations of the current Review before there is detailed consideration of the issues raised in these Petitions.
LAWYERS REVIEW THEIR OWN REGULATION: Third attempt by SCottish Government at reforming biased system of solicitors self regulation.
The latest review of the way lawyers regulate themselves marks the third attempt at addressing problems created by Scotland’s pro-lawyer system of self regulation, where lawyers write the rules, and look after their own.
In 2001, the Scottish Parliament’s Justice 1 Committee, under the Convenership of Christine Grahame MSP, met to consider evidence in relation to calls to reform regulation of the legal profession.
The inquiry, gained by the late, widely respected MSP, Phil Gallie, heard evidence in relation to how complaints were investigated by the legal profession.
However, Mr Gallie was replaced by Lord James Douglas Hamilton, and the Committee eventually concluded not to amend how the Law Society regulated Scottish solicitors.
A second, more substantive attempt to reform regulation of the legal profession came about in 2006, with the Scottish Parliament’s then Justice 2 Committee taking on consideration of the proposed Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act, which received Royal Assent in 2007.
The LPLA Act led to the creation of the now widely derided Scottish Legal Complaints Commission – once touted as an ‘independent’ solution to handing complaints against solicitors and advocates.
A mere nine years after the creation of the SLCC in 2008, the badly run legal quango, often itself the subject of scandal, charges of incompetence and downright bias – has become as much a threat to consumer protection as the Law Society itself was in the days when complaints were handled at the Law Society’s former HQ in Drumsheugh Gardens, Edinburgh.
The independent review of the regulation of legal services in Scotland is expected to consult widely with stakeholders and report to Scottish ministers by the end of 2018.
The independent chair of the review is Esther Roberton, current chair of NHS 24. Ms Roberton has extensive senior leadership experience in the NHS and other areas of public life. She is also currently a board member of the Scottish Ambulance Service (2014-18). She was chair of SACRO (2010-2014) and until recently also sat on the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service Audit and Risk Committee (COPFS ARC).
The review panel have confirmed their participation as follows:
• Christine McLintock - immediate past president Law Society of Scotland
• Alistair Morris - chief executive of the management board, Pagan Osborne (Law Society of Scotland)
• Laura Dunlop QC - Hastie Stables (Faculty of Advocates)
• Derek Ogg QC - MacKinnon Advocates (Faculty of Advocates)
• Neil Stevenson – chief executive of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission
• Nicholas Whyte – chair of Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal
• Ray Macfarlane – chair of the Scottish Legal Aid Board
• Jim Martin – outgoing Scottish Public Services Ombudsman
• Dr Dame Denise Coia – chair of Healthcare Improvement Scotland
• Prof Lorne Crerar - chairman, Harper Macleod LLP
• Prof Russel Griggs - chair of the Scottish Government’s Independent Regulatory Review Group
• Trisha McAuley OBE - independent consumer expert