Legal review: Adversities ahead can all be overcome, says President of the Law Society of Scotland

It seems to pretty much go without saying these days that we’re living in a time of considerable change and uncertainty. Right now, a number of specific challenges are on the legal profession’s radar beyond those being faced by the country and indeed the entire world. As is often the case, many of these challenges could just as validly be called opportunities for Scotland’s solicitors and the people, businesses and organisations they serve.
President of the Law Society of Scotland Murray EtheringtonPresident of the Law Society of Scotland Murray Etherington
President of the Law Society of Scotland Murray Etherington

While we’re living for the most part in a post-pandemic world, Covid-19 and its consequences will remain with us for some time – the courts backlog, for instance, continues to present a serious challenge, although some progress is now being made.

Recently, the Law Society’s Council has had to deal with the enormously troubling issue of threats, harassment and in some cases violence against solicitors as they carry out their work.

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We will always call out all forms of intimidation and derogatory language. That includes, of course, politicians trying to score cheap points by criticising “lefty lawyers” without considering whether that may embolden more serious forms of abuse. The Council has agreed to research to quantify the extent of harassment and abuse, but one solicitor abused just for doing their job is one too many.

The ongoing crisis in legal aid similarly remains a major concern. You may have seen our campaign, spearheaded by social justice activist Darren McGarvey, to demand urgent action. Everyone, regardless of their circumstances, should be able to access legal advice to uphold their rights, but the system is failing less advantaged people who rely on it most.

The Scottish Government’s recent commitment to an £11 million increase to criminal and civil legal aid fees is much-needed progress, but it is not enough to fully resolve the deep-rooted issues caused by more than two decades of chronic underfunding. Regular fee reviews must be introduced, on top of the proposed fee increases being implemented quickly.

There is plenty of reason for optimism too though, as the solicitor profession appears to have largely weathered the storm of the past few years. That positivity is reflected in the key priorities chosen for the Law Society’s recently launched new five-year strategy.

It sets out how we will ensure we are a strong regulator, but also a powerful voice for not just our profession but also for the public. There’s a clear commitment to health and wellbeing, innovation and efficiency and the use of technology.

Another key part of our strategy is a focus on sustainability and laying out how our profession should be responding to the climate crisis. We recently announced the creation of a new Sustainability Committee to build on the huge amount of work done in the lead-up to COP26.

Solicitors are, of course, already considering the impact of climate change on themselves, and many are involved in advising clients and employers on matters related to this critical issue. But we need to ensure that our profession fully understands and is prepared for the challenges that lie ahead, and that we’re prepared to play an active role in policy and legislative developments.

Finally, we have an eagle eye on the Scottish Government’s hugely significant announcement of its intention to introduce new legislation to reform the regulation of legal services.

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Change is clearly needed, with much of the current legislation unfit for the needs of Scotland’s modern legal sector and the international market in which we now compete. We’re pleased that change is now in the pipeline, but we need to see the details before we can judge whether what is proposed is the right change.

We need real improvements which better protect consumers while allowing the legal profession to thrive.

- Murray Etherington is President of the Law Society of Scotland