THE head of the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) has claimed many solicitors make a "complete bollocks" of their clients' legal aid claims and are hopeless at administering their own accounts.
In an extraordinary telephone exchange, a transcript of which has been passed to The Scotsman, SLAB chief executive Lindsay Montgomery accuses Mike Dailly, a former chair of the Law Society's access to justice committee, of talking "plain nonsense" when he claimed big cost savings could be made by scrapping it.
He defends SLAB's role by noting how "rubbish" individual legal firms are at assessing clients for legal aid, saying the board was needed in order to ensure public funds were spent wisely.
"When solicitors try to do anything with income and capital of clients, they are shocking at it. For the vast majority of small firms, their administration is rubbish. That's not being pejorative, that's true," he says.
Mr Montgomery notes that his equivalent body in England has its accounts qualified every year. "Why? Because of the complete bollocks solicitors make of the things they do," he says.
The release of the conversation, which took place last October, is the culmination of a bitter row within the legal establishment over its structure.
In October, the Law Society's access to justice committee proposed merging SLAB with the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, creating a one-stop shop to cut administrative costs.
Mr Dailly, head of the Govan Law Centre in Glasgow, resigned from his post on the committee earlier this week, claiming SLAB had "intimidated" the society to ensure his reform plans were dropped. He has now been accused of pursuing a vendetta against the Law Society and SLAB.
The call between the two men took place after Mr Dailly's proposals to break up SLAB became public last October. In 2009-10, the quango authorised payments of 150 million in legal aid to firms, and announced efficiency savings of more than 10m, but Mr Dailly said more could be saved.
As the conversation begins, Mr Montgomery notes of Mr Dailly's proposals: "Only people who dinnae understand numbers could come up with that".
He says Mr Dailly's plans to farm out SLAB work to localised bodies would see administration being "palmed off" to solicitors. Describing the administrative functions of solicitors' offices as "rubbish", he notes: "If you take advice and assistance, solicitors make a bollocks of assessing clients' contributions now."
Reinforcing his point, he notes again that solicitors made "a complete bollocks of contributions" (from clients), noting "40 per cent were overcharged by solicitors and 60 per cent were undercharged".
Mr Dailly said the comments showed the SLAB head had "utter contempt for solicitors".He added: "There is something rotten at the core of the legal system. The fact we don't have a strong independent legal professional regulator results in the SLAB dictating the agenda. And nobody will challenge that."
Figures from SLAB's most recent annual report show that, in 2009-10, it achieved efficiency savings of more than 10.9m.
The Scottish Law Society said: "The society's dual role representing and regulating the profession was examined in great detail last year and culminated in a referendum … (and] 73 per cent of those who voted wanted the society to keep its dual role."
A spokeswoman said Mr Dailly had failed to attend the society's last three council meetings to set out his reform proposal.
The Scottish Legal Aid Board - what they do
THE Scottish Legal Aid Board manages the payment of legal aid in Scotland. It decides on grants for all civil and criminal legal aid.
Funds are allocated based on criteria tests agreed by the Scottish Parliament. That leaves solicitors to apply tests solely in advice and assistance cases.
The cost of legal aid in 2009-10 in Scotland was 150 million.
The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission handles all complaints against legal practitioners. While separate from the profession, it is funded by legal bodies such as the Law Society and the Faculty of Advocates. The board is appointed by ministers and consists of legal and lay members.