The referendum has taken the headlines this past month, but important issues have also had to be addressed on regulation, and on lender panels
Given the worldwide interest in the issue, even those taking a well-earned winter break in January would have been able to follow the latest twists and turns in the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future. First, the UK Government launched a consultation on the nature of a referendum on whether Scotland should leave the UK. Then, two weeks later, the Scottish Government began a consultation on its own Referendum Bill, which outlined proposals for a referendum date, question and other matters.
The Society, of course, has taken a keen interest in all developments. As a major organisation containing many experts on constitutional law, it is important that we assist in guiding the people of Scotland and the UK to act in a legal and constitutional way. We will respond to both consultations in an effort to do just that. However, it should be stressed that the Society will not be drawn into the political discussions. Rather, we will continue to take a politically neutral stance, while helping to facilitate debate among our members and society as a whole.
Over the border
The referendum was inevitably a topic of some discussion at the lively Burns supper organised by the Society of Scottish Lawyers in London, where we met many solicitors and others working south of the border, strengthening our links with firms that have Scottish connections, and organisations such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority. At the end of the month, we met our counterparts in England & Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland to discuss matters of common interest. And we have constant dialogue with the SRA to work out issues around cross-border regulation. Law and the business of law cut across boundaries. It is important that, while mindful of what is happening in Scotland, we as a profession also keep our eye firmly on the wider global picture.
In Scotland, we now have some of the draft regulations that allow us to develop the framework for a regulatory regime. There are still unresolved issues and questions to be answered, but progress is being made. However, firms in England & Wales have been able to establish alternative business structures since October, and the SRA expects to license its first new legal services provider this month. It is important that Scottish firms have the same opportunities as their English competitors as soon as possible. More of this in the future.
Last month, I mentioned discussing with Sir Muir Russell, chair of the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland, how to encourage solicitors to consider a judicial career. It is true that there has been little structure to judicial careers, other than an assumption that advocacy skills will readily translate into judicial skills. But now we have a transparent and structured system through JABS, which is keen to ensure that future appointments are based on relevant skills and attributes, developed with appropriate experience. The Society considers that an exciting prospect. We would expect JABS to identify the skills and attributes they are seeking, while we look to find ways to build a solicitor’s relevant experience from an early stage. It is encouraging to work with JABS on developing such a positive way forward.
On a less positive note, the news that HSBC is to limit its solicitor panel in Scotland to just four firms was extremely discouraging. It was apparently a commercial decision, driven by the fear of mortgage fraud, a crime not as widespread in Scotland as south of the border. And the effect will be to restrict client, and consumer, choice. It also throws up some serious regulatory issues. The Society continues to lobby HSBC and other lending institutions, stressing that actual risk should be properly assessed. The real risk in restricting panels, for the public and particularly those in rural areas, is the loss of local legal services.
Finally, I was saddened by the recent death of former Society President John McNeil CBE. Our longest-serving committee member – 48 years on the Conveyancing Committee – John always contributed to the work of the Society with wit and wisdom, demonstrated only recently at our past Presidents’ meeting. Our condolences go to John’s family.
Cameron Ritchie is President of the Law Society of Scotland.