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Pushing ahead with a modernising agenda

1 July 04

President's message: New rules and legislative powers will be a positive move for the Society and the profession

by Duncan Murray

I was told that it was a good idea to hit the ground running in the first few months as President of the Society and am grateful for the tip. It has been a busy and productive month.

I had the pleasure of attending two important milestone events for solicitors. The first was the practice management course for new partners and the second was the Admission Ceremony for new solicitors. The Admission Ceremony continued the tradition of women outnumbering the men to be admitted. Perhaps more noteworthy was that the percentage of women to men has also increased on the practice management course, with women accounting for more than a third of new partners on the course.

The Society continues its work to modernise and improve its complaints handling system. Council has called on the Executive for new legislation in two areas. The first is to allow the Society to make a finding of unsatisfactory conduct or issue a reprimand to a solicitor where there are conduct issues. We are seeking these lesser powers in addition to the existing power to prosecute a solicitor before the Discipline Tribunal where a more modest summary sanction may be appropriate. The second is to deal with the rare but disruptive problem of solicitors who fail to respond to correspondence from the Client Relations Office (CRO). It is impossible for the CRO to progress complaints unless solicitors respond to their regulator. The current sanction of prosecution before the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal leads to substantial delay in progress being made with the complaint. For that reason the Council is seeking legislation to introduce powers to suspend solicitors who fail to respond. This measure would impact on a small number of solicitors but it would benefit the clients of those solicitors and the profession as a whole.

Council agreed in June that the rules on terms of engagement letters should be expanded to virtually all areas of practice. This has been an area of controversy but has been successful in conveyancing, immigration and financial services work where rules require solicitors to make clear to clients at the outset the basis on which fees are to be charged, the work agreed to be done, who will be acting for them and who to contact if dissatisfied. Of course this is already common practice in most firms. The Professional Practice Committee will now draft rules for Council’s approval.

The Society’s correspondence with the Executive on the need for legislation, the complaints handling process, the improvements made following the Justice 1 Report and Council’s decision on letters of engagement were discussed at a recent press briefing at the Society and were covered in the Scottish media. I look on this as a very positive initiative. It is incumbent upon the Society to seek to inform and promote accurate reporting of the Society’s work and we have the support of an able media relations team to assist that process.

I was delighted to attend a reception for the Crown Office initiative, Victim Information and Advice which has been developed to provide assistance and liaison with victims of crime and is a prime example of how the legal system is developing and improving.

The new legal aid regulations for advice and assistance are now in force for all work undertaken on or after 28 June. While a 5% rise is by no means spectacular, it is a small and I hope interim step along the road to more appropriate remuneration for advice and assistance work. The Society will continue to participate in discussions with the Scottish Executive and SLAB as there is much work still to be done to improve the provision of legal aid for people in Scotland.

We had a valuable meeting of the Irish, Northern Irish, English and Welsh, and Scottish Law Societies in Dublin in June. Inevitably this focused on the Clementi review, of which there is more in this issue from Douglas Mill. Our discussions touched on the proposals going to the Law Society of England and Wales Council in July amending their rules on conflict of interest to permit informed consent – particularly topical given the recent Court of Appeal decision upholding the injunctions granted to Marks and Spencer against Freshfields. The Society will have to look at our own rules in the event of the changes being approved. It is essential that we have clear rules to deal with one of the core values of the profession.

Now that the holiday season is upon us I would like to wish those departing their offices for a well earned break, an enjoyable holiday and good luck with weather!