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A look in the mirror

19 March 07

President's message: The annual events that take place in March bring the opportunity to step back and consider the Society's future direction

by Ruthven Gemmell

Two highlights

Already, March has been a busy month for the Society, with two key annual events staged. First, the annual conference was held at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, with a large turnout focusing on conveyancing, trusts, employment law and family law. Not only did those present receive valuable updates on areas of law that have undergone considerable change, they also gained CPD hours in the process.

Just a week later, the annual general meeting was held across the city at the Royal Museum, again with a healthy attendance from the profession. As expected, the issue of reforms to the legal profession was raised, in relation to both the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Act and the Legal Services Bill, which is currently under consideration at Westminster.

Strategy in focus

My own view, as I made clear at the AGM, is that the passing of the Holyrood legislation has at least ensured that the immediate future for the Society is clearer after several years of uncertainty. In response, the Society is forming a dedicated group to direct our strategic decision-making in the short and medium term. The aim of the Strategy Team is to achieve excellence in an efficient and innovative professional body. We must ensure that meaningful and useful services are available to the public and the profession, for instance in relation to training, qualification, professional development and recognition.

The importance of standards

The issue of standards will come increasingly into focus when the new Scottish Legal Complaints Commission is established. It is abundantly clear that greater emphasis will have to be given to universal standards throughout the legal profession. These are important in protecting the excellence and respect of the solicitors’ “badge”. We should all seize the initiative in taking these matters forward. The experience of similar bodies to the Commission, such as the Financial Ombudsman Service, is that uncertainties arise where professional standards are absent or unclear. It would be wise to avoid this. Meanwhile, we will continue to influence the implementation process and educate the profession about ongoing developments.

The wider reform agenda

It is likely that the reform agenda will shift towards the legal services market in the months ahead, while also focusing on Lord Gill’s review of the civil court system and the proposals on the independence of the judiciary.

In the meantime, the Society must make sure that the introduction of alternative business structures does not put Scottish firms at a competitive disadvantage with their counterparts south of the border. We are watching these developments and discussing them with interested members of the profession and the Scottish Executive.

Will the seller’s survey help?

Another matter we will continue to raise with the Executive is the proposal to introduce single surveys. Publication of a consultation document on the subject has already generated considerable debate and the Society will respond by arguing robustly for the most effective and efficient system. Clearly, the availability of more and better information, early in the transaction, is of all-round benefit. The Society and the profession have already adopted a number of measures – use of the property sale questionnaire and regional missives – with this in mind. We have also invited the profession to make their views known through an online questionnaire. This attracted a healthy response, more of which is explained in the article on the single survey consultation on p 50 of this edition of the Journal. However, the proposals put forward by the Executive fail to recognise the good work already done and run the risk of creating new problems. We will work with ministers to find the best possible solution for Scotland’s homeowners.

Education: a big job ahead

The education consultation has now closed, with around 900 submissions, and I would like to thank everyone who took the time to register their views. The Society is currently working on analysing the responses, a significant task in light of the volume and complexity of the feedback, and will then start discussing future policy in detail. The consultation website has already been amended to provide an initial overview of the data and will continue to give updates on how the project is progressing.