LEGAL MATTERS: New bill grants unprecedented powers for ministerial meddling

LibDems justice spokesman Liam McArthur and courts in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dumbarton.

By Bill Heaney

The Scottish Government’s Bill on reforming legal services regulation has attracted warnings from the Law Society that new proposed powers allowing Scottish Ministers to intervene and direct regulators are “deeply alarming” and risk seriously undermining the independence of the legal regulation from the state.

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP said: “At the very point the party of government is being investigated by the police, SNP Ministers seem intent on increasing their control over the legal profession.

“Of course, the Roberton review and work by organisations such as Which? show that the regulation of legal services needs to be modernised to better serve both the public and the profession.

“However, as it stands this bill grants unprecedented powers for ministerial meddling.

“While enhancing professional standards and reforming the complaints process is long overdue, lawyers must be able to challenge governments on behalf of their clients without looking over one shoulder at how ministers might react.

“Scottish Liberal Democrats will do everything we can to ensure the transparency and accessibility of the complaints process while robustly opposing any provisions that put inappropriate powers in the hands of Ministers.”

President of the Law Society, Murray Etherington said: “Some aspects of the proposed Bill are deeply alarming.  One of the most important roles of the legal sector is to challenge government on behalf of clients and hold it to account. The proposed new power allowing Scottish Ministers to intervene directly in regulation risks seriously undermining the independence of the legal profession from the state.  This is clearly unacceptable and needs removed from the Bill by the Scottish Parliament as the Bill progresses.

“There is still an opportunity to use this Bill as a catalyst for real, positive and long-lasting change. Maintaining professional standards and protecting clients is some of the Law Society’s most important public interest work.  However, much of the existing legislation on regulation is now over 40 years old and is simply unfit for today’s modern and diverse legal sector. This is why we went to the Scottish Government almost a decade ago, asking for change. The complaints system in particular needs reformed to make it quicker and simpler for the benefit of all involved. There is also a chance to better protect consumers from unqualified providers of legal services, especially when things go wrong.”

David Gordon, the non-solicitor convener of the Law Society Regulatory Committee said:  “The new legislation provides a chance to build on the huge progress made over the last few years.  Our independent regulatory committee has already shown the value in having non-solicitors at the very heart of the Law Society.  This has helped ensure solicitor standards are high and that complaints numbers low. Nevertheless, we know we can do more in terms of the committee’s transparency and accountability and the Bill provides an important framework to help make that happen.

“The legislation is also an opportunity to expand our public interest powers and allow us to step in at an earlier stage when things go wrong. We think the Bill could go even further than is currently proposed, especially in terms of how our complaints are handled, so cases are dealt with more quickly for the benefit for all involved. However, we need to avoid hard-wiring too much detail into the Bill which will only restrict our ability to adapt and evolve as the market changes.”

Pictures: The Court of Session in Edinburgh; Glasgow High Court and Dumbarton Sheriff Court.

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