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President's report

1 November 00

President's message comments on Donald Dewar; access to justice; members' services; Legal Post

by Alastair Thornton

Donald Dewar’s death united Scotland in mourning the passing of the great man. He was of course a solicitor who joined the profession in 1965. He was given an Honorary Membership of the Society in 1998 – the highest honour the Society can bestow.

While his greatest achievements were, of course, as a politician, he was nevertheless happy to take part in Law Society events; he gave an inspiring keynote address at our 50th Anniversary Conference last year, and put his prepared speech aside to deliver a very funny and spontaneous after-dinner speech at the Annual Conference in Glasgow the year before. He will be fondly remembered and sorely missed.

Dewar’s Legacy

Donald Dewar’s principal legacy was piloting the Scotland Act 1998 through Westminster and on to fruition in Edinburgh. As I have mentioned before, the new parliament involves the Society and the wider profession in far more consultation than we have ever experienced at Westminster. Our views are sought and listened to and there is a real sense of working constructively with politicians.

Different processes apply in Westminster. For example, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (which gives Government authorities wide surveillance powers) was enacted without proper statutory recognition of the right to confidentiality between a client and their solicitor. This is worrying for our democracy and for the future of e-commerce in the UK. Society representatives met Government officials in London this month and we sincerely hope that the Government will listen to the Society’s genuine fears for civil liberties and act to maintain this fundamental right which is recognised in all free democracies.

Access to Justice

One of the areas the Scottish Parliament will be considering before too long is legal aid. The Justice and Home Affairs Committee (JHAC) are undertaking their own review of the system with an eye to improving access to justice in the future. The Society will work to provide JHAC with whatever information it needs. The more specific information the Society is able to provide the better. Anecdotal evidence will be of no value so if you have experiences of real cases where your clients have been denied access to justice then please draw this to the attention of Michael Clancy as Secretary of the Legal Aid Committee. The value of providing details of real problems cannot be over-emphasised.

Some members of JHAC were present at the excellent Legal Aid Conference held by Update at Heriot-Watt University on 27th and 28th October. They heard from those of you present about the current constraints on the system and how access to justice is increasingly limited for many of our clients. It is important that the issue of access to justice is addressed by JHAC or consequences for the delivery of an open and fair system of justice in Scotland will be grave.

Services for All Members

This year, the In-House Lawyers Group held its AGM in Perth on 9th November. Unfortunately the group had to do without their wonderful Convener, Janet Hood from Stonehaven, on the day. Janet is recovering from illness. I know her thoughts were with her members in Perth just as our thoughts in the Society are with her. I am sure that the group as well as everyone at the Society would like to wish her a speedy recovery.

In-house lawyers make up more than a fifth of the practising profession and also look for value for membership of the Society. Much of the regulatory work carried out by the Society is of principal relevance to private practitioners. However, services can and should be just as useful for in-house lawyers as for those in private practice.

The Legal Post and Microsoft

I hope that the recent announcements to the profession about a special deal on Microsoft products and the Society’s support of The Legal Post (Scotland) Limited initiative will be of interest and value to all solicitors. There are many more ideas and opportunities in the Society’s thought processes at present and I hope that those ideas can also shortly result in demonstrably helpful services for every Scottish solicitor.

The Society’s objective in supporting the initiative taken by Legal Post is to encourage competition in relation to services which solicitors purchase from commercial providers, with a view to improving quality and value for money. When the new service starts early in the new year, there will undoubtedly be a period of transition from the present monopoly situation to open competition. As with any new venture, there are bound to be some teething troubles but the Society is confident enough about the arrival of Legal Post to switch its own very substantial need for document exchange services to the new company. Furthermore the stakeholding which Law Society Services Limited has been given in the new company should provide a measure of control for the profession over the extent and quality of the service offered and the value of the pricing structure over future years. This element of control by the profession is entirely missing from the current arrangements. As a result of the shareholding, the Society and its members stand to benefit from the commercial success of the company.

Ultimately the decision as to whether to use Legal Post is of course entirely for you and your organisations to determine. I hope that the steps the Society has taken to foster competition in this sphere will be of real benefit to you.