Law Society of Scotland calls for review of legal aid scheme

Year of reflection sees legal body consider tech solutions, fee reviews and costs

Alison Atack

To meet the challenges of the future and ensure the ongoing health of Scotland’s legal sector – undoubtedly one of the country’s great success stories – it is important to reassess the ways in which we work from time to time. With that in mind, we contributed to the review of legal services regulation and the legal aid review in this past year.

For some time, we have argued for flexible legislation that protects the public and meets the needs of a modern legal profession, and we submitted proposals for wide-ranging reforms to the legal services review led by Esther Roberton. We strongly opposed the primary recommendation to create a new single regulatory body for Scotland which risks weakening public protection and increasing costs for those who pay for legal services. However, we are pleased to see a number of our suggestions to improve the regulation of legal services have been recommended in the Roberton report.

We intend to engage with our members and other stakeholders in discussions on ensuring legal services’ consumers are properly protected, alongside the real need for enabling legislation which can address the issues of today and provide sufficient flexibility to deal with the challenges of the future.

We are keen to encourage innovation and respond to the increasing role of technology in the legal services market. Our recent launch of LawscotTech will encourage lawyers and tech experts to join forces to develop products and services to benefit the sector. It will provide support for the most promising technology-based concepts and help those involved to deliver them.

The “Rethinking Legal Aid, An Independent Strategic Review” report was also published this year. We endorsed the call to simplify the aid system and reinvest any savings to ensure members of the public can access the legal advice they need regardless of their financial situation or status in society.

We remain concerned about fees and the long-term sustainability of legal aid practice, and we want a new fee review system to be taken forward promptly to ensure fair and sustainable fees for solicitors carrying out legal aid work.

Everyone in Scotland benefits from the legal aid system, as illustrated by a study we carried out during the year – the first of its kind in Scotland – into the social return on investment of legal aid. In addition to identifying the benefits for individuals who directly received legal aid, the research considered the impact on tax payers and wider society, highlighting a positive financial effect for the NHS, local authorities and prisons.

In other research, it was worrying to find that one-third of solicitors who took part in a survey had been victims of violence or threatening behaviour. The study underlined the urgent need to develop measures to minimise the risk of violence against people working in legal services.

Among many important projects during the year, we launched Lawscot Wellbeing, a web-based resource to promote emotional wellbeing among those working in the sector. With one in five solicitors likely to be affected by a mental health issue at some point during their careers, the importance of providing such support cannot be underestimated.

It has been fantastic to see the progress of the Lawscot Foundation, the charity we founded to help talented students from less-advantaged backgrounds through their legal education. Now in its second year, it is supporting a total of 17 legal stars of the future.

Amidst the uncertainty over the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, we continue to monitor developments and promote the interests of the legal profession and the public as negotiations over Brexit take place.

There is no shortage of work and ongoing debate within the legal sector as we look to 2019 – a year which will mark the Law Society of Scotland’s 70th anniversary.

Alison Atack is President of the Law Society of Scotland

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