Why the dual role works
18 June 12
In reply to last month's Opinion article, an argument that it makes common sense for solicitors to be represented as well as regulated by the Law Society of Scotland
In the current healthy debate about the Society’s role, the focus has been on the dual representative and regulatory functions. But it is worth considering who carries out that valuable work on behalf of the profession and the public.
Of course, the 120 staff at the Society’s head office do so on a day-to-day basis. But so too do the 600 solicitors and non-lawyers from around the country who give their expertise and insight to the Society’s committees, groups and working parties, in addition to several dozen Council members. Beyond that, 10,500 practising solicitors can vote to elect democratically their Council representatives, take part in general meetings and contribute to the business of their professional organisation.
All of those practising solicitors require regulation. Likewise, they all need administrative and membership services, currently provided by the Society’s Registrar’s Department. And the fees for the Guarantee Fund and professional indemnity insurance premiums would have to be paid regardless of any changes to the Society’s functions.
Last year, expenditure on representation and professional support was about £1.75 million of the Society’s £7.84 million budget. However, our Update courses and other activity produced £425,000 income against that, making it around only 16% of total expenditure. And that spending helped deliver services that many members rely on.
For example, it funded the solicitors in the Society’s Professional Practice Team, which provides such vital support to practitioners, dealing with more than 20,000 telephone and email enquiries as well as providing CPD across Scotland’s faculties.
By giving proactive advice, they also help reduce claims on the Master Policy, again of benefit to all members. The Update programme that helped to subsidise other work consisted of 216 events and attracted more than 8,000 delegates.
In recent months, members’ interests have been represented on a number of important issues: for instance, reductions to the size of solicitors’ panels, threats to legal aid and access to justice, court closures, reform of the civil courts, and many other matters. Through the independent charity LawCare, we also provide pastoral support to members in times of real need, part of our moral responsibility as a profession as well as helping reduce the need for regulatory intervention. In-depth research to gather feedback from members, which involved 573 interviews and 1,119 online responses, was generally positive about key areas of representative work.
And this is just a sample of our work. Providing representation and support alongside regulation also allows an integrated response to issues that arise.
For instance, if a problem was identified around compliance, the Society could provide cost-price training, professional practice support and guidance through our communication channels, rather than simply tightening rules or increasing prosecutions – the options open to a body that only regulates. In short, we take whatever action is required – including lobbying others – to ensure the reputation of the profession is maintained, but disproportionate and ineffective regulation is avoided.
Through a strong professional body, solicitors can take responsibility for their standards rather than simply abiding by the minimum rules set by an independent regulator. Other important strengths of the Society include providing increased negotiating power, a powerful and recognised voice for the profession, and promotion of the solicitors’ badge.
The Society has worked hard to deliver two cuts to the practising certificate, followed by a freeze. As a professional association, we put our proposed budgets and accounts to members every year. And a special general meeting, not the Council, eventually sets the fee. This important responsibility to the profession does not exist in any bodies that are simply regulators.
Solicitors in Scotland have an amazing choice of bodies to represent their interests and provide support. From local bars and faculties to national societies and practice specific groups, there is no end of choice and the profession would be far poorer but for the work of these bodies. But that is not a substitute for the importance of the overall cohesion of the profession.
Two years ago, 73% of members who voted in a referendum were in favour of maintaining the Society’s dual representative and regulatory role. I hope to meet as many members as possible to discuss this and other key issues at Society events across the country.
Neil Stevenson is Director of Representation and Professional Support at the Law Society of Scotland