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Taking up the message

20 October 08

President's message: the Society continues to press the Scottish Government with the profession's concerns, particularly over home reports and the economic situation

by Richard Henderson

Pressing concerns

The past month has been remarkable in many ways. Most noticeably, the crisis in banking, precipitated by the credit crunch, became all too clear. On our own doorstep, the proposed acquisition of HBOS by Lloyds TSB seemed to change the financial landscape overnight. Elsewhere, particularly in the United States, there was a feeling that the entire system was in danger of being overwhelmed. In the meantime, the solicitors’ profession continued to register job losses and short time working.

The Society’s meeting with deans of local faculties on 17 September provided valuable feedback on the difficulties facing solicitors around the country. Needless to say, the effects of the credit crunch figured prominently in all the discussions, with particular attention drawn to the potential impact of home reports and ongoing anxiety over legal aid.

Within a week, those concerns had been passed directly to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill. During a useful meeting with the minister, the Society described the economic situation facing solicitors, including the downturn in conveyancing and general practice as well as commercial practice. We also made representations about the potential impact of home reports, stressing that single surveys would do nothing for those forced to sell because of foreclosure. Likewise, the pressures brought about by inadequate legal aid fees were emphasised to the Cabinet Secretary.

However, positive discussions took place over the introduction of the Legal Profession Bill during the Scottish Government’s legislative programme for 2008-09 and some interesting suggestions for promoting the legal profession abroad were put forward.

SGM: huge interest

On the 26th, a Special General Meeting was held to discuss a number of key issues facing the profession. Again, much of the focus was on the possible effects of home reports, and more particularly the single survey. More than 2,000 proxy votes were cast following the debate on delaying home reports for at least two years – overwhelmingly in favour of the motion – and the Scottish Law Agents Society should be congratulated for helping to generate such interest in the subject. We will again relay to ministers the strength of feeling among our members over the potential damage to the Scottish housing market during the current economic climate.

Other important issues discussed at the SGM included a freeze in the practising certificate fee for next year (a cut in real terms); the introduction of a new set of standards for service and conduct; and the system for collecting the annual levy on behalf of the new Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC). Since the SGM, of course, the SLCC has opened its doors for business, a development that has involved significant work and planning by Society staff and created the foundations for a good working relationship with the new organisation.

Regulation in the wider world

Where then does all this leave the Society? Certainly, the value of regulation and the role of regulators will be at the forefront of the debate over the crisis in the financial markets. That process will undoubtedly affect regulation of legal services. In turn, the Society must press ahead with its agenda of modernisation and reform to ensure we meet our obligations to regulate in an environment that may become increasingly complicated, while accepting no compromise on our core values and principles. In doing so, we are obliged to consider the positive impact that proper and effective regulation can have on the operation of the market to ensure equal access to justice. Guarantees of access to justice are vital to any reform of legal services.

The Society’s reform agenda involves more than just a radical look at our own governance structures: we will give equally radical consideration to other important areas, such as business structures, standards, and education and training. Our aim is to make sure

that the profession has the confidence of the public and other stakeholders, now and in the future.

 

Hail to the new chief

We are fortunate that Lorna Jack will join us as the Society’s new chief executive in January to steer many of these changes through.

 

She returns to Scotland from the States where as President Americas of Scottish Development International (part of Scottish Enterprise) she has seen the impact of the credit crunch at source. Her knowledge, experience and skills, particularly in business and the economy, will be crucial as the Society works to support the profession through challenging times.

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