The spending review and the Scottish Government's legislative programme are two issues posing an early challenge under the Society's newly published strategic aims
It is September as I write, although remarkably the weather is what we were looking for in June! This has been another busy month on all fronts and once again your Society has put in a power of work on your behalf. There is not enough room to detail everything, but here are some of the more important developments.
The “Law in Scotland – One Profession” conference was billed as more varied than ever before, with a programme to suit all sectors of the profession. It certainly didn’t disappoint. We heard presentations from many within the profession, and others from the worlds of politics, business, banking and elsewhere. Updates covered, among other topics, the proposed reforms to the justice system, the emerging regulatory landscape, and Lord Carloway’s review in relation to the detention and questioning of suspects. It was heartening to meet so many colleagues from all sectors of the profession across the country, underlining the sheer breadth of work we undertake. I hope those who attended found it enjoyable and were given cause to remember that we should have great pride in our profession.
Ahead of the conference, the Society published its strategy for the next decade. Towards 2020 contains a new strategic aim – to lead and support a successful and respected Scottish legal profession – underpinned by five key objectives, which include ensuring our members are trusted advisers and are economically active and sustainable. Given the rapid pace of change and continuing economic difficulties, it is particularly important that we plan ahead, establishing priorities and mapping out how to best to support our members. Promoting the excellence and professionalism of Scottish solicitors lies at the heart of our purpose and vision.
Those who attended the Society’s special general meeting were given more details about the strategy, and feedback has been positive.
Practising certificate fee frozen
Other important business also took place at the SGM, not least making a decision on the 2011-12 practising certificate fee. Following a thorough and studied approach to budgets by every department, we proposed freezing the fee at £550, following two years of reductions, to reflect the economic challenges facing solicitors. Our proposal was endorsed at the SGM, though members were reminded that the freeze was only possible by using some of the Society’s cash reserves. Future deficits are neither sustainable nor desirable, and increases in the PC fee are likely in the coming years.
Coming as it did two days after the Scottish Government’s spending review, the PC announcement hopefully gave some comfort to those at the sharp end of further legal aid budget cuts. While it was unrealistic to think that justice budgets could be immune from the cuts in public spending, the potential impact on access to justice remains a concern. We will continue to work with ministers on their proposals, including the legislative programme of 15 new bills, while also arguing for the protection of access to justice, fair remuneration of solicitors and the sustainability of legal aid practice. As ever, our law reform team will play a key role, scrutinising proposed legislation to ensure it translates into good, workable law.
The findings of Lord McCluskey’s review group, which examined the relationship between the High Court and the UK Supreme Court in criminal cases, were also published, and will be considered further as we move forward in the parliamentary process. The Society welcomed the recommendation that the Supreme Court should retain the right to rule on human rights issues arising from Scottish criminal cases. However, we disagreed that the court should only have this power where the High Court grants a certificate that the case raises a point of law of general pubic importance, as this could restrict access to justice. We will continue to contribute to the debate as the Scotland Bill passes through Westminster.
Looking at rural inclusion
Through October, I will be continuing with a series of faculty visits around the country. In Stornoway, where I met Western Isles solicitors, one of the issues they raised was the difficulties members in rural areas experience participating in the Society’s work. We have to look seriously at finding ways to better involve our outlying members, whether though videoconferencing or perhaps merging the conference with the autumn SGM. Other suggestions are welcome. The next evening I was in Glasgow, speaking to the Royal Faculty and then, after the SGM and Council meeting, it was off to Belfast to represent you at the Law Society of Northern Ireland.
I am about to start a southern faculties tour at Haddington and then on to the Borders, Dumfries & Galloway, and Ayrshire. It is great to get out and about round the country – and I hope this Indian summer will last through my faculty visits.