John Mulholland: Considering the Law Society of Scotland’s past and present in its 70th year

Scottish solicitors make a huge contribution to our country’s economy.

John Mulholland, president of the Law Society. Picture: Jamie Williamson

They work to support many of our most successful industries at home and abroad. They help families on the journey from their first homes to their last. They prosecute difficult, complicated and often shocking cases in the public interest. They provide the highest quality advice, guidance and representation to the most disadvantaged, challenged and marginalised of our community. The significant and vital contribution to the rule of law, human rights and justice made by Scottish solicitors is immeasurable.

It is an honour therefore to be the Law Society of Scotland president during its 70th anniversary year, but we should remember that legal aid in Scotland is also 70 years old. The Legal Aid and Solicitors (Scotland) Act came into force in August 1949 “to provide legal advice for those of slender means and resources, so that no-one would be financially unable to prosecute a just and reasonable claim or defend a legal right; and to allow counsel and solicitors to be remunerated for their services”.

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It was a visionary piece of legislation made when the country was still in the grip of post-war austerity, and it is important today to recognise the work of solicitors who have provided their services with the benefit of legal aid to thousands. We will continue to work to ensure the continued availability and success of this vital assistance for those in need.

This year also marks another important anniversary – 100 years of women in law. Madge Easton Anderson, a Glasgow University graduate, was the first woman to be admitted as a solicitor in the UK following the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919. She was one of the pioneers to open the door for thousands of women to follow. And they have – just over half of Scotland’s solicitor profession is now female.

There has been real progress, but we know there is still much to do. The Law Society is viewed as a leader for its equality work and we will keep striving to ensure we have a modern, diverse and inclusive legal profession which gives men and women from all backgrounds an equal opportunity to succeed.

The legal landscape has of course been dominated by Brexit this year and never before has the public eye been as focused on the courts as in recent weeks. It’s essential that any one of us should be able to bring a matter to court if we believe our rights or obligations are being affected. What Scotland’s Court of Session, the English High Court and UK Supreme Court judgments have demonstrated is that the judiciary and legal profession act independently – and we can be confident they will continue to consider cases solely in light of their legal competence, regardless of political or public opinion.

It’s important too that we have an effective regulatory framework that provides robust consumer protections. We are fully engaged in constructive dialogue on regulating Scotland’s legal profession in the 21st century following the recent legal services review. While we believe there is a more appropriate and proportionate alternative to its primary recommendation for a new regulatory body, we agree with many of its points.

We are also working to take advantage of the huge advances in technology to help solicitors deliver high-quality services. As part of our initiative LawscotTech, we aim to build a global community of specialists, facilitate a thriving legal technology environment and drive improvement.

The profession has developed in ways that could never have been foreseen 70 years ago, but Scottish solicitors retain the best of traditions in serving their clients while continuing to innovate and thrive.

John Mulholland is the president of the Law Society of Scotland.

This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s Scottish Legal Review 2019. A digital version can be found here.