Law Society of Scotland branded too corrupt to regulate new legal services in Scotland. The Law Society of Scotland has been branded "too crooked" to regulate the Scottish legal services market after implementation of the changes proposed by the Scottish Government's “Tesco Law” Legal Services Bill, due to be introduced in a few weeks time to the Scottish Parliament. This view of many, including even insiders at the Scottish Government throws into question some proposals contained in the planned legislation, and rumours of ‘done deals behind closed doors with the Law Society’ over who will end up regulating non-lawyers entering the expanded legal services marketplace.
In my report of last week, the Scottish Government's Legal Services Bill announcement left many consumer groups and even some legal insiders questioning the scale of the changes proposed to the current legal services marketplace in Scotland. While the initial proposals contained little hints of policies to protect consumers from the increasing ranks of 'rogue lawyers' who are now routinely committing large scale & destructive frauds involving millions of pounds of clients funds in Scotland, there was much mention of ways in which law firms can receive external investment, and 'combine with other professionals' to offer legal services in new ways.
This afternoon, a Scottish Government insider who does not share a sympathetic view to continued self regulation of solicitors,, spoke of the need to avoid giving the Law Society of Scotland any more power in the arena of regulating those practicing legal services in any expanded market, branding the Law Society "too crooked to be trusted with regulating lawyers".
He said : "Even though the Law Society are lobbying hard to retain their regulation of legal services and come out on top in the Legal Services Bill proposals, the few sane thinkers in the Scottish Government who have had anything to do with them know these people are simply too crooked to be allowed anywhere near regulating complaints against their own colleagues."
He continued : "The fact is the Justice Department has been swamped by letters from members of the public over the years who cannot get anywhere near a fair hearing when they take their complaints to the Law Society about 'crooked lawyers'. Inevitably we as the Scottish Executive get dragged into their problems after having exhausted all avenues they either write to us directly or ask their local politicians to do so and on each occasion we have to write back to them saying the same thing that there is nothing we can do."
"This has happened thousands of times in the past few years, and if anyone is looking for an example of why the Law Society should not be allowed to regulate solicitors, they need only look at some of the cases brought to our attention, which include everything from fraud up to allegations of criminal activity by solicitors against the public. Any sane person having to read through thousands of such letters would come to the same conclusion that the Law Society, having ignored such quantity of pleas from the public, cannot be trusted as a regulator in any shape or form."
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill : Puppet of the legal profession or legal services consumer protection champion for Scotland ? As an experienced law reform campaigner I know full well the weight of representations made to the Scottish Government by members of the public, MSPs and MPs over the years, even having to go down the same route myself regarding the case of crooked lawyer Andrew Penman. I can therefore attest to the lack of help that successive administrations (including the present) have been to members of the public who have failed to secure justice when trying to pursue complaints & court cases against crooked members of Scotland's legal profession.
The lack of consumer protection measures in the Scottish Government's Legal Services Bill therefore concerns me, and on the basis of what is currently being talked about, I doubt we as the Scottish public will get much of a better deal and choice of legal representation as the proposals currently stand, unless the Bill’s parliamentary stage can incite significant amendments to some of what is currently proposed by the Justice Secretary.
Consumer Focus Scotland support an opened legal services market and consumer protection. Consumer Focus Scotland were asked for their reaction to the Government's announced plans for the Legal Services Bill, and issued the following statement : "We made clear in our response to the Scottish Government consultation ‘Wider Choice and Better Protection: a consultation paper on the regulation of legal services in Scotland’, we support the liberalisation of the legal services market in Scotland, subject to the necessary consumer protections being put in place. We believe that this will result in more consumer-friendly, high quality legal services in Scotland."
Consumer Focus Scotland did criticise the lack of promotion of fully independent regulation of legal services, as has occurred in England & Wales, stating : "While we note the regulatory objectives as proposed do not include two objectives included within the Legal Services Act in England and Wales – that of encouraging an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession and increasing public understanding of the citizen?s legal rights and duties – we believe the objectives proposed offer a suitable framework.In particular we welcome the objectives of promoting access to justice and protecting and promoting the interests of consumers. We believe these objectives should play a fundamental role in the future regulation of ABS."
You can read Consumer Focus Scotland's response to the Scottish Government's consultation on legal services reform here : Consumer Focus : Wider Choice & Better Protection (Legal Services Reform). In comparison, you can also download a copy of the Scottish Consumer Council's report on the poor & unchanging state of regulation in Scotland's legal profession here Scottish Consumer Council : Complaints Against Solicitors
A group representing users of legal services in Scotland however questioned Consumer Focus Scotland's approach to the question of regulating an expanded legal services market, citing calls from other national consumer organisations such as Which? for completely independent regulation of those in the legal services market as an example to follow.
A spokesman for the group said : "Just about anyone who has used a solicitor in Scotland will tell you that it is better to have non lawyers regulating lawyers than having lawyers themselves do it. Its not rocket science really. If lawyers were taken out of the regulatory equation then clients would feel a lot safer when having to deal with members of the legal profession or anyone who is allowed to work & operate in the legal services market."
He continued : “The fact is much stronger measures on regulation than are currently proposed will have to be taken if the public are going to be properly protected when their relationship with their solicitor goes wrong and I feel Consumer Focus and other high profile campaign groups must highlight this issue and stick with it.”
Scottish campaigners for legal services reform pin their hopes on Which?, who are to be credited with adding considerable momentum to reform of legal services in Scotland. Today, a spokeswoman for the consumer organisation Which? commented on the Scottish Government's proposals for expanding legal services, saying : "Obviously we are pleased to see this legislation coming in, and hope that the consumer interest is squarely at the heart of it, with more choice and competition emerging as a result, and better access and affordability for consumers."
You can download a copy of the Which? “Super-Complaint” on restrictive practices in Scotland's legal services market here : Restrictions on Business Structures and Direct Access in the Scottish Legal Profession
Certainly as I reported late last week, there needs to be much more done in the Legal Services Bill to serve the public interest, and, as consumer groups demand, ensure that consumer protection and free choice is put first before the interests of a presently poorly regulated legal services industry which has become too used to having its own way at any cost.
It is a positive development that at least some in the Government also share that view. However, much work by way of campaigning and, when the time comes, submissions to Parliament, needs to be done on these proposals to ensure the individual has the unrestricted choice of legal services and access to justice which we as Scots certainly do not have currently.