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Stand up to be counted

15 May 06

President's message: As she leaves office, the President is still in good shape, the profession is in good shape, but it must remain united in facing major challenges to its values

by Caroline Flanagan


The quickest year of my life is coming to an end. I was warned it would pass quickly, but those in the know say this has been even more hectic than usual. With some trepidation, I looked back at my first column. Would I wince with the benefit of hindsight?

Apparently not. I was blessed with the foresight to say that I had no specific agenda for the year. Already it was clear that the work to be done by the Society would be driven by others to a very large extent. Most of the last year has been hijacked by the consultation and now the bill dealing with complaints handling.

My aims at the outset were to improve communication, try to move legal aid forward and to do my best to protect the independence of the profession.

On communication I feel that there has been progress. The majority of the profession are now contactable by email and most feedback on this has been extremely positive. Only one solicitor complained that he was fighting a losing battle to have correspondence remain paper based. At this time in particular it is of huge importance that the Society is able to communicate with its members and I am delighted that this is now much more effective.

On legal aid – I wish I could say something similarly positive. The recent increases proposed on an interim basis of 8% for advocacy and 5% for other work were derisory and we have made it plain to the Executive that we are not prepared to work with them further on legal aid if that is the best offer. The Deputy Justice Minister was to meet with Society representatives at the start of May but then cancelled the meeting on the basis that it did not merit his input.

Whilst the Society is still trying to negotiate with the Executive, the most recent letter from the Justice Department was clear that the offer on the table remains broadly the same. To me the message is clear – the politicians are not interested in legal aid funding (except to cut it!) and there is a danger of creating the dental crisis all over again with our own profession. The Legal Aid Solicitors Committee is urgently seeking a way forward and will keep the profession updated on progress.

I thought the threat to the independence of the profession came from England, but it turned out that the greater and more immediate threat came from the new Legal Profession and Legal Aid Bill. This is the most profound piece of legislation affecting the profession in my own time as a solicitor, particularly as it gives the new Commission some reach over our conduct decisions. Of even greater concern is that there is already a call for conduct to be taken away from the profession altogether and given to the Commission. If that happens, the independent profession will be a thing of the past and we will be the only democracy that I know of where the government has control over the legal profession. This will not be an apocalyptic change but will happen gradually until one day in the future we will realise that we have lost something extremely precious. I take huge comfort though from the fact that over 600 responses have been received by the Justice 2 Committee in respect of the bill. The majority of these have almost certainly come from the profession and I would like to thank you all for being engaged in this. At no time has it been more important that the profession is – and is seen to be – united.

As I reach the end of my term I am asked by many to describe the high and low points of the last year. The lows are few and far between. The most depressing point, for me personally, was the realisation that the Justice Department is working under such pressure that it does not have the time to ensure it has a holistic understanding of the issues facing the legal profession. This applies across a range of topics and the bill is symptomatic of the problem.

The high points of the year are many. Attending foreign conferences has of course been wonderful, but at the end of the day I think visiting faculties and discussing various issues with the profession has been what I will take away with the fondest of memories. I have seen myself as a servant of the profession, and raising awareness of topical issues and what the Society is doing to address these is of the utmost importance.

I leave the year in pretty much the same shape as I started – literally. Weight gain: nil (almost!); enlarged livers: 1. It has been a fantastic experience and I would like to thank Douglas Mill and his staff at the Society for their support. I wish Ruthven Gemmell and John MacKinnon, the new President and Vice President, as good a year. I know they will enjoy it.