President's message: the first month in office has seen an unexpected level of media exposure as the Society stands up for professional values and sound law
Last month I looked back at the frenetic year of Jamie Millar’s presidency, never anticipating how busy my first four weeks in office would be. Five radio interviews and three television appearances in the space of four days were only part of it! However, given the importance of issues such as the role of the UK Supreme Court and the Scottish Government’s proposed legislation to tackle sectarianism, it was crucial that the voice of the legal profession was heard clearly. So, a couple of weeks into post, I was on a whistlestop tour of radio and television stations.
I write this a few days since the passing of Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, whose death surprised and saddened us all. I met Alan Rodger, then an advocate depute, over 25 years ago, and spent some weeks working with him on a complex and lengthy High Court indictment. He was a challenging person to work with, but at all times kind and friendly as well as encouraging. He was a lawyer of immense ability and intellect. He went on to hold some of Scotland’s most distinguished positions, including Lord Advocate and Lord President. His more recent role as one of the two Scottish judges on the UK Supreme Court underlined his considerable contribution not only to the justice system but to society as a whole. Above all he was a great ambassador for the Scottish legal profession and someone who will be greatly missed.
The debate that raged on the role of the judiciary following the First Minister’s comments on the UK Supreme Court resulted in a joint statement from the Society and Faculty of Advocates – highly unusual in itself. Interviews on Reporting Scotland, Radio Scotland, Radio 4’s Today programme, STV and numerous local radio stations hopefully got across our firm belief that the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary must be respected. Likewise, it was stressed that personal attacks on legal professionals are both unwise and unhelpful, and that ministers should reflect carefully on their public statements. The strength of feeling among the profession was reflected by the fact that a number of organisations, legal and otherwise, echoed our concerns.
Another major issue was the proposed anti-sectarianism legislation. Again, speaking for the Society involved visits to BBC studios, this time for Newsdrive and The Politics Show, to express our view that the Offensive Behaviour Bill was being pushed through Parliament far too quickly. It is essential that commendable efforts to combat sectarianism are informed by proper debate and a level of scrutiny that ensures they stand the test of time. I was pleased that our efforts, and others’, persuaded the Government to revise its proposed timetable. Once again the Society’s view was widely covered by newspapers from the Stornoway Gazette to the Galloway Gazette, as well as broadcast media.
Discussions with ministers and party justice spokespeople continue on other matters, not least legal aid and the new police station duty scheme. In a letter to Kenny MacAskill, I stressed that we remain deeply concerned, particularly about the unjustified interference with the principle of solicitor of choice, and believe the Government should reconsider the whole scheme as a priority. Changes have been made but a large majority of our members have understandably refused to sign up.
In all these issues, it has been fundamental to stress the importance in Scotland of an independent judiciary, and indeed, the independence of the profession as a whole. Solicitors must be free to provide advice to clients or employers without interference from any source, including Government.
One of the most enjoyable events of the last month was attending my first Admission Ceremony. At the Signet Library we welcomed 60 new solicitors and enjoyed an address from Lord Tyre, who greeted our new colleagues with wise words about professional independence… very apt!
Another was the “Deans’ away day”, in Dunkeld, where Vice President Austin Lafferty and I met representatives from faculties and bar associations across Scotland to discuss issues of concern to the profession. A clear theme emerged around the need to strengthen the “brand” of solicitor, to ensure we make the solicitor the adviser of choice here in Scotland and abroad. It was a full and challenging day, but – I believe all agreed – a success, and one to be repeated.
The final of the Society’s debating tournament was also a great experience. The quality of the debate, on “youth versus experience”, was extremely high from all four teams, but Mari McGinlay and Blair Wilson from Braes High School, Falkirk, were particularly convincing. Credit to both for winning at their first attempt.
Finally, my warm congratulations to former Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini, who was made a Dame of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, for services to the administration of justice in Scotland. She broke new ground as the first member of the Society (as well as the first female) to be appointed Lord Advocate; and I note that the Lord Advocate’s new team of senior prosecutors contains more members of the Society than members of Faculty – another first!