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Headline fortnight

19 October 09

President's message: a series of big events in late September each have a significant bearing on the future of the profession

by Ian Smart

As you will be aware, the task of being President largely consists of being carried about on a ceremonial divan while being hand fed specially made Turkish delight by a bevy of exotic maidens. Hopefully, I can get back to that soon.

Occasionally however there are periods which demand some actual work to be done, and such was the end of September.

In swift succession we had the Society’s Devolution Conference; the SGM; the establishment of the “Woodside” review; the presentation of the Gill Report; and the publication of the Legal Services Bill. Each would merit a column in itself. I want however to say something briefly about each, listing them in my own order of importance.

Over the years, many within and beyond the profession have complained about the archaic nature of Scotland’s civil justice system. Some, with appropriate authority, most notably Sheriff Principal Taylor in Glasgow, have even attempted some piecemeal and limited reform. Until now, however, no one has really had the opportunity to look at the whole system, top to bottom, and propose a comprehensive way forward. Such was the challenge set to Lord Gill. He has accomplished it with flying colours.

First, he has produced a report which is a good read, containing many (often horrible) truths recognisable to all civil court practitioners. He has avoided the naivety that sometimes sees lawyers as obstacles to, rather than essential elements of, a user-friendly system. He has also recognised that the principal users of the system are not lawyers, or judges, but the litigants, actual or potential.

To the roll of honour that already contains the names of Coulsfield, Penrose, Bonomy and McInnes must now be added that of Gill. Here’s hoping that Sheriff Principal Bowen, on completion of his own report on sheriff and jury business, will be next to join.

The following day, we finally saw the shape of the Legal Services Bill. It contains no unpleasant surprises, and broadly is simply permissive in allowing the Society, if members so wish, to develop the liberal policy towards alternative business structures voted for decisively by the 2008 AGM. Much work however is now needed both here at the Society and within individual firms. We are already looking at a new regulatory regime, but we need to hear from you about the business models you have in mind. This is not just of relevance to the big firms; it has consequences throughout the profession. We appreciate that there may be matters of commercial sensitivity, and we have decided that any forward planning on your part can be confided to Lorna Jack in the strictest confidence and, insofar as relating to its source, retained as information by her alone.

Thirdly, there is the review into rights of audience, under financier Ben Thomson. Having praised Lord Gill above, it would be fair to say that we did not see eye to eye with him over many of his comments in Woodside. Solicitor advocates are a permanent and increasingly important part of both the civil and criminal justice systems. This review is the result of an initiative by my predecessor, Richard Henderson. We believe we have nothing to lose and potentially much to gain from this exercise.

Next, I turn to the SGM. This was a game of two halves. It would be fair to say that the excitement faded a bit after the break. First, however, the Society acknowledged the huge contribution to the profession made by the legendary criminal defence lawyer, Joe Beltrami. I am seldom conceited enough to make reference to my own speeches in print, but I encourage you all to watch the live webcast on the Society’s website. Only then can you gain even a glimpse of the accomplishments of his career. Thereafter, we adopted the practising certificate fee for 2009-10; voted on two motions from members; and concluded with an update on the reform of education and training. This last point is important. There are big changes afoot here. If you’re not already aware of them, details are on the website.

And finally, this round of activity started with the Society’s Devolution Conference. It is an express objective of the Society to improve its image and relationship with wider civic Scotland. This event was part of that project. More than 150 delegates from within and beyond the profession heard from a variety of speakers commenting, not always uncritically, on the experience of the first 10 years of Scotland’s Parliament. Both the feedback and the media coverage have been excellent and we anticipate holding future events of this nature. My personal thanks however are due to all our speakers and to the Society’s staff, particularly Update, involved in organising the event.

In closing, I would point out that the various reforms to our justice system are themselves the partial fruit of the devolved settlement. Certainly they have been developed by lawyers but they have had, throughout, support and encouragement from Holyrood and St Andrews House. Lawyers (myself included) can be critical of our political class, but when credit is due, it should be acknowledged. This is such a time.

That’s all. I’m away back to my divan. I wouldn’t want the exotic maidens to eat all the Turkish delight.

 

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