Legal: Presidential potential that’s more than sum of his parts

Bruce Beveridge, who will take over the Law Society of Scotland's presidential hotseat from Austin Lafferty. Picture: Neil Hanna
Bruce Beveridge, who will take over the Law Society of Scotland's presidential hotseat from Austin Lafferty. Picture: Neil Hanna
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There’s a broad appeal to the Law Society of Scotland’s Bruce Beveridge, finds John Forsyth

On one hand Bruce Beveridge, formally taking up post as president of the Law Society of Scotland at the end of this month, is rather frighteningly considered. He acknowledges that the breadth of his cv, that takes in private practice, government service and legal support in the private office of a Lord President, is unusual. But not accidental. “Whenever I have taken on something new I have always had in mind what the next thing will be.”

On the other hand, when he gets into full flow about the central role of law and of the solicitor profession in the life of civic Scotland, you can see the passion. “There is a lot of unmet legal need out there. There always has been and always will be people who would benefit from the services of a solicitor to help them keep on top of things in their life, long before they become a problem, but are reluctant to go into a solicitor’s office because it seems so formal. Sixty per cent of us, for example, don’t have a will and that alone leads to major upheaval within families every year. It is vital for our high-street solicitors to engage with people in their community and build a relationship so that the first time they meet a client it’s to provide a service, not to sort out a crisis.

“I’m not talking about a transformation of what solicitors do. It’s what we have always done. But we have always to renew the way we do it.”

If that means mobile lawyer vans in rural areas and pop-up shops on depleted high streets, embracing informal settings for unmet legal need, why not?

Renewal is good, but perhaps understates the upheavals in the way his members earn a living, radical changes in the law and in the way it is administered that have registered on the legal Richter scale over the last year.

Criminal defence solicitors have taken industrial action and picketed the Scottish Parliament. Major firms have gone bust or sought live-saving – or face-saving – mergers. Alternative business structures and contracting of legal services are looming. There have been public disagreements, with the Justice Secretary, and with unhappy members of the law society. And in the year ahead there is the small matter of the run-up to the referendum on the future of Scotland.

These are towsy times to be taking on the top job, but that broad cv is apparent in the way Beveridge separates the issues into containable components.

First, he is not alone. “For some time we have had a rolling three-year leadership. It’s not realistic to think that one person can make a significant impact during a one-year term of office. I’ll be working closely with Austin Lafferty as immediate past president and Alistair Morris, who will follow me. The society itself now has an established three-year strategy and corporate plan, like any efficient firm in private practice. It is the job of the elected leadership to support the chief executive and staff in making sure that plan is carried out effectively and efficiently.”

Secondly, he is not against change. “When I was in the supreme courts I was a fan of the proper application of technology to make procedures quicker and easier for the parties in any action. The law and the courts have an obligation to be user friendly.”

And thirdly, unhappiness among some parts of the membership under pressure has to be acknowledged and addressed. The wrangle over the imposition of a scheme for collecting contributions from accused persons towards the cost of their legal aid led to bitter words and accusations of “betrayal”. An uneasy peace has prevailed in recent months, while the Scottish Government gets around to setting a date for implementing the scheme – now expected to be in October.

“It is my intention to be visible and present among the membership and at local faculties. I know some of the members are still raw at what they regard as having their views overridden by the government. But I think it was their determination that enabled our legal aid negotiating team to secure significant changes to the scheme originally envisaged by the government. The backdrop is the squeeze on public spending. We can’t change that. We have to do what we can within it.”

Beveridge mentions relationship building several times in describing his approach to his term of office. He is referring not just to face-to-face contact with the members and endorsing the use of information technology within the society to gather views and intelligence on emerging issues to aid the established committee system. He is also indicating that the society’s case has to be made on a broader front than direct meetings with government ministers and officials.

“We are trying to establish better long-term relationships with MPs across the piece and in all parties to brief them on what we feel are the issues that affect not just our members but their constituents. In criminal defence we need to get them to ask what system they will want to be in place for their son or daughter or grandson or granddaughter if they find themselves arrested at 1am. We have to get across that defence might not be there when they need it if it isn’t there for everyone.”

Beveridge says he is a great believer in collaboration and co-operation with government “but it is imperative we get our case in at the beginning of the process rather than trying to undo decisions that have already effectively been made”. He pays tribute to the effective work of the society’s law reform department below the radar in making effective contributions to consultations and proposing amendments during the progress of bills through Westminster and Holyrood.

The influence of that broad cv is apparent. Beveridge moved from private practice early in his career to become legal secretary to Lord Rodger when he was Lord President of the Court of Session. “I can say I learned more about the law in my first six months there than in all the rest of my training and private practice put together.”

Similarly, he has experience as a solicitor within government before and since devolution. He served as deputy keeper of the Registers of Scotland and deputy director in Rural Affairs in 2009 with responsibility for land reform, crofting, tenant farming, and rural communities.

He left the Scottish Government in December 2011 but regards the experience as invaluable. “You learn a lot about the law from the entirely different perspective of implementing a democratically endorsed legislative programme. In the process you also learn how to deal with competing interest groups putting forward their concerns and suggestions that can’t all be accommodated. Finally, you learn about how to deal with ministers. That’s an experience in itself.

“I’ve always taken what I do quite seriously and applied myself seven days a week to whatever I have taken on,” he says.

The Beveridge year ahead may be characterised by moderate tones, but not by weekends off.