Alternatives for firms debated

GROWING tensions between commercial and consumer interests over legal services are to be debated at a Law Society of Scotland conference on Friday.

In the wake of the Office of Fair Trading's (OFT) recent response to the Which? super-complaint, the society will hold a half-day meeting to explore the implications of alternative business structures (ABS) proposed for firms in England and Wales.

ABS is not yet officially on the cards in Scotland but the OFT has recommended the Scottish Government look at lifting market restrictions which "could be causing harm to consumers". These include current rules governing advocates' business structures and third-party entry into the market.

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The consumer lobby is pushing for Clementi-style reforms to be introduced in Scotland in order to increase competition and drive down prices. Some larger Scottish firms have also indicated they want to see a level playing field with their English rivals in the post-Clementi era.

But the society and Faculty of Advocates have already expressed concerns about the impact that alternative business structures could have on public access to legal services, particularly in rural areas, if so-called "Tesco law", (firms such as the AA and the Co-op have plans to provide legal services) drives small firms out of business.

Michael Clancy, the society's director of law reform, stressed the importance of solicitors engaging in this week's debate to help find solutions to balancing commercial and consumer interests with the need to maintain access to justice.

He says the profession has now reached a "significant crossroads", with any reforms likely to have far-reaching implications for the entire legal system.

"It is quite clear that there are tensions," he says. "There are the issues of commercial work and commercial interests and there is the high street and the small town and rural areas, and issues about access to justice. What is the solution that satisfies everyone?

"That is one of the reasons why the conference is so important - it is a very significant crossroads for the profession and the Scottish legal system. It will inform the views that set the timbre for developments in the early 21st century.

"There are lots of commercial concerns affecting large and small firms alike. The Scottish Government will want to create an environment where both the large firms can feel satisfied that they are providing a service to their clients and that that service is providing a showcase for Scottish legal skills, and at the same time small firms are providing a service to our communities."

The society is drafting its own proposals for reform, to be published in a green paper this autumn. Clancy says it is "no secret" that a draft document already exists, but he stressed it will be adapted to reflect views put forward by the profession.

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"Part of the process of the conference is to inform the society's council about the various views," he says. "Once the conference is over, the council will have the opportunity to consider the things that have been said on the day and the idea is that we should produce an options paper, a kind of green paper, which will put out options into the public domain for comment and response.

"After we have analysed these responses, we will come forward with a more substantive policy statement. Hopefully this will be concluded in the early part of 2008."

Clancy says the process may take some time to conclude but pointed out it is important to find the right solutions for the Scottish marketplace: "This is such a crossroads that the implications will reach far and wide and affect the system for a long time to come. We have to proceed properly so we get the right answer, because getting the wrong answer will be very bad for the public and for the legal system of Scotland."

At Friday's conference in Edinburgh, the keynote address will be made by Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary. Other speakers include Jonathan Goldsmith, chief executive of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE), and Sean Williams, of the OFT. A panel discussion will also hear views from Martyn Evans, the director of the Scottish Consumer Council, Valerie Stacey QC, the vice dean of the Faculty of Advocates, Douglas Connell of Turcan Connell, Julia Clark of consumers' association Which? and Christine McLintock, of McGrigors.

Clancy adds: "It will be extremely interesting to see if the tensions can be substantiated by the people from the larger and smaller firms and from the consumer interest and Faculty of Advocates.

"The discussion will be extremely informative and will assist our council and policymakers to get to grips with the issues and see how these various tensions can be relieved and what middle ground there can be."

Yet any decisions about whether to follow the English model, set out in the Legal Services Bill currently going through Parliament, are hampered by a lack of evidence from other jurisdictions about the longer-term impact of alternative business structures, Clancy says.

Across much of Europe, and even in the United States, Clancy says, there is opposition to the concept of the multidisciplinary practice, and Australia is the only other major jurisdiction in favour of them.

• "The Public Interest - Delivering Scottish Legal Services" will be held at the Weston Link on Friday 28 September. For more info visit