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Promoting our ideals

17 March 08

President's message: the ideals of serving justice which brought most of us into the law, increasingly reflect the approach expected of successful organisations today

by Richard Henderson

The European Presidents’ Conference in Vienna traditionally takes place on the last weekend before Lent. I don’t think that that is simply so that delegates can attend the Juristenball, or Lawyers’ Ball – although that may be an advantage of timing the conference during the Faschingsfest – because the conference does look at serious issues and allows countries of an ever-expanding Europe to come together and benefit from sharing experiences. This year the conference was directed towards access to justice, and it was fascinating once again to see how many problems and issues are similar and shared around Europe and beyond.

What do we mean by access to justice, and why are we concerned about it? In the ABS discussion paper, we highlighted as a fundamental principle the need to safeguard fair and equal access to independent legal advice across Scotland, regardless of ability to pay. Access to justice is a much broader concept than that, of course. It is truly a fundamental principle to which all lawyers subscribe. It lies behind the worldwide condemnation by lawyers and legal associations of, for instance, the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. In February, the Society joined with some 33 other associations of jurists in calling for the closure of that facility. As lawyers, it is essential that we are prepared to intervene by speaking out in such ways.

Equally, we should be prepared to ensure there is proper access to justice closer to home. On behalf of the public, we must always seek to ensure that people have access to legal services, that the court system is workable, and that public authorities are regulated properly.

How then can we achieve those outcomes? The Society will continue to lobby in the public interest, for example, to secure legal aid at the best possible level. That outcome involves an important responsibility on government and the public purse. However, we also have to consider more flexible ways of delivering legal services. There is no reason why we cannot look at pro bono and law clinics as models for actual delivery; we know there will be limitations on how far those can go, but that should not prevent us from asking questions of ourselves.

This touches on the increasingly visible area of what may now be known as our sense of corporate social responsibility, or CSR. This year, the Society sponsored the CSR award at the Cuthbert Legal Awards and I would like to congratulate the winners, McGrigors, on their success in that competition. Research suggests that the public will take a business’s social responsibility record into consideration when buying products or services, and there is no reason to suppose that does not apply equally in the case of legal services.

The greater significance placed on matters such as CSR signifies a change in the way the market place operates. It also reflects the way organisations see themselves and what they have to do to succeed. It is simply another facet of the need for businesses to have clear goals and structures if potential is to be maximised. Council realises this and is currently examining the question of governance. Our existing model is in effect more than 50 years old, and most agree that we need to look at what is necessary for the future. By the end of the summer, we hope to be well on the road to developing a new way of working in order that we can better meet the needs of the profession.

That process has been greatly assisted by our “Investing in the Future” conference which I attended along with the Council and senior staff of the Society at the end of February in Crieff. That conference, and the Council meeting which followed it, demonstrated a real will for change as it looked at just how the Society functions and what it must do to ensure that it is fit for purpose as the legal services market continues to develop and grow. At both events there were a number of in-depth discussions on a variety of subjects, including detailed aspects of the governance of the Society, the future of the profession and delivery of legal services in Scotland. As a result of Council decisions, the Council’s policy paper on alternative business structures will be issued for open consultation to all members of the profession in April prior to the AGM on 22 May, and there were also great strides made in developing clear and enforceable standards of service for the profession.

However, in considering governance at the Society, greater social responsibility in our profession, new ways of working and even issues relating to the new Complaints Commission, we cannot simply adopt a tick box approach. And we should always remember why most of us took up the law in the first place: to safeguard and promote critical principles such as access to justice. Which brings us back to Guantanamo Bay and the need for us all to look constantly at what I believe the public actually wants us to do: to act both as a champion of best practice and as a guardian of the rule of law.