Alison Atack: Scottish legal sector is one of our country’s success stories

Scotland’s legal profession attracts respect at home and around the world. Independent research shows that nine in ten clients of Scottish solicitors are satisfied with the service they receive. Trust in the solicitor profession as a whole stands at 81 per cent, notably higher than similar research showing only 48 per cent trust in the profession in England and Wales.

Alison Atack is President of the Law Society of Scotland
Alison Atack is President of the Law Society of Scotland

I am really concerned however, that unqualified people can call themselves ‘lawyers’ and offer ‘legal services’. The danger of using an unqualified, unregulated ‘lawyer’ rather than a regulated Scottish solicitor is no redress or protection for the client should things go wrong.

The Law Society of Scotland has led innovation and improvement in the regulation of solicitors for 70 years. That’s why the we have called on the Scottish Government for some time to introduce legislation which allows changes to the way legal services are regulated. This includes protecting the term ‘lawyer’, so only qualified and regulated people can use it. We also want to see an overhaul of how complaints against solicitors (overseen by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission) are handled. The current process is too slow and cumbersome for everyone.

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A report last October by Esther Roberton on legal services regulation agrees with many of our proposals. However, I have grave concerns about Ms Roberton’s overarching recommendation of creating a new single regulatory body and removing the regulatory role of the Law Society of Scotland. She recommends the same for the Faculty of Advocates and Association of Commercial Attorneys. I believe a new regulator could create potential unnecessary risk to consumer protection and increased costs.

Ms Roberton’s proposal would see the setting and enforcing of standards - in terms of qualifying as a solicitor, anti-money laundering, inspecting law firms and managing the client protection fund which protects consumers from financial loss through the dishonesty of a solicitor or their staff - carried out by an inexperienced organisation. The Law Society of Scotland is best placed to continue to regulate the solicitor profession.

We already have a highly competitive legal sector, with nearly 1,200 private law firms, overall employment of 24,000 and an annual economic contribution of more than £1.5 billion.

This hard-won success was recognised in the Roberton report: “Scotland is home to a well-educated, well respected legal profession with a high degree of public trust of which I believe we can be rightly proud.” It went on to say “there is little evidence of wrongdoing in the current model.”

As such, I do not believe Ms Roberton has provided the kind of convincing evidence expected to justify her main proposal, which would involve significant upheaval, uncertainty, and increased cost for consumers.

An overwhelming majority of Scottish solicitors questioned recently agree. According to new independent research of over 500 solicitors in Scotland by Survation and Mark Diffley Consultancy and Research, 93 per cent of respondents agree the Law Society should continue to be responsible for representation, support and regulation of solicitors in Scotland – and 91 per cent of respondents agree the Law Society is an effective regulator of the solicitor profession.

Additional costs are not only bad for consumers, they risk undermining the international competitiveness of Scottish solicitors and legal firms. With all the uncertainty in our economy today, this is the last time to build in more unnecessary costs.

When the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) was established in 2007, it was expected to cost the legal profession approximately £1.2 million per year. The most recent SLCC annual report shows the costs now stand at almost £3.1m. Over the last three years, the SLCC’s levy on Scottish solicitors has increased by 24.5 per cent.

I believe there are alternative reforms which would improve the regulatory system, enhance consumer protection and importantly, protect the competitiveness and economic vibrancy of the Scottish legal services market.

One option we have suggested is to transform the SLCC into a Scottish Legal Ombudsman Service which could concentrate properly on dealing with consumer complaints thoroughly but swiftly. That ombudsman could give the necessary focus to consumer redress and issues of compensation. This would allow the Law Society to continue its strong track record of addressing issues of professional misconduct and prosecuting for discipline.

This reform could ensure the Scottish legal sector remains one of our country’s proudest economic and social success stories and ensure robust public protection.

Alison Atack is President of the Law Society of Scotland