ROBUST protection for the public is in place, writes Carole Ford
Most people need the services of a solicitor at some time in their lives, often when making key decisions about the future – buying and selling a house, starting a new business, making a will or perhaps becoming involved with the court system. And given the important role solicitors play in people’s lives, it is essential that protection of the public lies at the very heart of regulation.
Of all the thousands of legal transactions carried out by Scottish solicitors each year, a very small number give rise to a complaint. The creation of the Society’s Regulatory Committee is one of the measures introduced in recent years to significantly overhaul the regulation of Scotland’s solicitors.
The independent Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) opened in 2008 to receive all complaints about lawyers from the public and decide if an investigation should take place. It also has oversight over some areas of the society’s regulation work.
Along with the separate Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal, which has the power to stop solicitors involved in serious wrongdoing from practising, this provides a robust system of co-regulation when problems do arise. At all levels, checks and safeguards ensure the public is effectively protected and has a right of redress.
The society has made changes too, not least with the establishment of the regulatory committee, which was set up by legislation passed in 2010 to provide oversight of the society’s regulatory function to the benefit of both the public and profession. Both myself, as convener, and James Allan, the vice convener, are non-solicitors – I am a former headteacher of Kilmarnock Academy and James is a chartered surveyor – along with half of the committee’s membership. The committee brings together lawyers from a variety of sectors with professionals from medicine, accountancy and surveying – a considerable breadth of expertise and experience. On the evidence of the past two years, they function very well as a unit, with no discernible split between solicitors and non-solicitors when it comes to decision-making.
Importantly, all the other committees dealing with regulation also have as many non-solicitors as legal professionals involved in making decisions. And they too are working effectively and efficiently in the interests of the public and the profession.
Of course, a key role for the society is preventing problems arising in the first place, by setting high standards for solicitors, providing rigorous training and continuing professional development, fit and proper testing of those wishing to enter the profession, proactively inspecting hundreds of law firms each year and intervening when there are concerns about client funds. All of these measures help to safeguard a respected and trusted legal profession in Scotland.
But we are well aware that no system is perfect. With that in mind, the society has been working closely with the SLCC and others, including consumer organisations, to review aspects of the current complaints system. And it is clear that improvements could be made around the eligibility stage, conduct/service hybrid complaints and appeal processes. A series of legislative changes that would make the system work quicker and slicker have been passed to the Scottish Government.
The Society has also announced a wide-ranging, independent review of the compensation fund that is available for people who suffer financial loss through solicitor dishonesty. The review will examine the cover and benefits the Guarantee Fund provides to consumers, along with funding and governance arrangements. The fund, paid for by the owners of solicitors’ firms, has been a cornerstone of the profession for the past 60 years but the legal market is changing rapidly. The time is right for a root and branch review – which should be completed before the end of 2014 – to consider whether the current setup is still effective and appropriate.
As a non-solicitor professional, I believe the system for regulating Scottish solicitors is robust, transparent and seeks to promote the best interests of the public. Anyone considering using the services of a solicitor can be confident that non-solicitors, like me, are at the centre of a system of regulation that has been put in place to protect their interests.
• Carole Ford is convener of the Law Society of Scotland’s regulatory committee www.lawscot.org.uk