President's message: preparing for the AGM revealed how much work went on at the Society in the year under review - and it continues
As well as carrying out the important business of the day, an annual general meeting also provides a fitting opportunity to reflect on the achievements and challenges of the past year. Yet when preparing for last month’s AGM, I found it difficult to know where to begin.
Even in hindsight, the past year or so has been particularly eventful for the Society and the solicitors’ profession. Although the economy began its slowdown several years ago, conditions have remained tough for many firms. Solicitors in the property, banking and corporate sectors have suffered reductions in fee income. Those in the public and legal aid sectors have endured significant cuts in public spending. And the year ahead could be even more challenging.
The debate on alternative business structures continued throughout 2010, with the early months of my term of office dominated by the passage of the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill through the Scottish Parliament. Strongly held views were expressed for and against ABS, though independent referendum votes among the profession clearly backed the Society both applying to regulate any new structures (81%) and retaining its dual representative and regulatory role (73%).
Support and development
The Society has put considerable effort into supporting members during the downturn, while also working hard to promote the interests of solicitors and the public during the parliamentary process. But our representation and support team has done much else besides.
Alongside the time-consuming business of responding to the ABS reforms, our law reform staff have ensured that the voice of the profession is heard at the heart of the decision-making process at Holyrood, Westminster and Brussels, responding to 64 consultations last year and working on more than half as many bills. A manifesto has been produced for next month’s Scottish Parliament elections and we look forward to continuing to work with the Government and others on the implications of the Cadder judgment and Lord Gill’s review of the civil courts.
In education and training, we have moved forward in revising the route to qualification for solicitors, with 16 accreditations taking place for universities proposing to offer new programmes; offered support to new lawyers experiencing difficulties in the downturn; and developed the schools debating tournament into the biggest competition of its kind in the country.
At the same time, we launched the new Registered Paralegal scheme, further developed our system of CPD, and took forward an extensive project to review the accounts rules and consolidate the practice rules.
Recently, the Society persuaded the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission to use its reserves to reduce the annual levy on solicitors and, following our representations, Lloyds Banking Group allowed those unfairly removed from its conveyancing panel to reapply.
Of course, challenges remain, not least the continuing economic uncertainty and the prospect of further public spending cuts, for instance, to the legal aid budget. Last month’s AGM failed to produce a conclusive outcome to the constitutional reform process, with a majority of members voting in favour of rescinding the current constitution but not the required two-thirds majority.
One of the concerns raised centred on a note emailed to members giving reasons why we wanted or needed to reform the constitution. In particular, a reference was made to the need to change the constitution to create a new regulatory committee. This was described by some members as misleading. Although we believed only a new constitution would provide the committee with sufficient autonomy, it was decided to seek senior counsel’s opinion on the specific issue, to remove any ambiguity. The opinion concluded that we do have the necessary powers in our current constitution for Council to create this regulatory committee. Regrettably, our original view – although given in good faith – was therefore inaccurate in this respect. It is important that members are aware of this correction as we continue to consider the best way ahead. We remain convinced of the need for change – not least to allow non-solicitor voting members of Council, as confirmed by counsel’s opinion – but likewise must listen carefully to the views of those who question our proposals.
Throughout the year, the Society has remained determined to listen and engage with our members, both in our day-to-day work and at a series of events and meetings with bar associations and faculties around the country. That determination remains, whether considering the best way forward on the constitution, legal aid, access to justice, the political reform process, or any other issue of importance.
Looking ahead, we have a special general meeting next month to approve the consolidated practice rules and new accounts rules. These rules will then need to be replicated into the regulatory scheme for licensed providers to ensure the level playing field between traditional practices and new forms of providers of legal services which the membership clearly expects its Council to put in place. Work continues on the preparation of that regulatory scheme, with input from the Scottish Law Agents Society to the working party.
Much has been done and yet there is much still to do. The work continues and will continue after I hand over to Cameron Ritchie.