Supermarkets in line to offer legal services

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SCOTLAND'S legal profession yesterday opened the door to competition from supermarkets and banks after a "historic" vote to end their control over the market.

The Law Society of Scotland overwhelmingly backed a motion to break the monopoly solicitors have over the ownership of legal firms in Scotland.

The move means that a sweeping change in the way legal services can be provided is now a significant step closer.

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) last year made a range of recommendations in light of a complaint by the consumer group Which? that the current set-up hinders market innovation. Currently, lawyers cannot go into partnership with non-lawyers, but the OFT believes consumers would benefit if these "alternative business structures" were overhauled.

Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, has already given his backing to reform of the legal profession, insisting that "the status quo is not an option".

Yesterday's annual general meeting of the Law Society saw members vote around nine to one in favour of change.

Richard Henderson, the president of the Law Society, said: "This is a historic decision, there's no doubt about that. There's been a great deal of thought and discussion on the question of alternative business structures. That's been going on for some time.

I'm very grateful to our members for the measured way the entire issue has been handled. "We have … got the support of the profession to take the matter forward.

"This is only the start of a long process. Further discussions will take place to draw up specific proposals, which we will feed back to government."

He said the society would "continue to work closely with its members from across all sectors of the profession, the government and other stakeholders to ensure that any future reforms will benefit those who require legal services and that access to justice remains central".

The vote will pave the way for external ownership of law firms, as well as partnerships between solicitors and non-solicitors, or organisations such as banks or supermarkets providing legal services.

A crucial aspect of reform that will open the legal market, Mr Henderson said, would be to ensure the new companies providing legal services were properly regulated and work to the current professional standards.

The OFT has also said the ban on advocates forming partnerships should be removed and the public should be allowed direct access, rather than having to go through a solicitor.

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