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President's column

16 December 13

The Society continues to work with key interest groups – this month on corroboration, the complaints process, and supporting lawyers abroad whose rights are not recognised

by Bruce Beveridge

On the same day last month that attention was fixed firmly on the launch of the independence white paper (more of that later), the Justice Committee was, with less fanfare, hearing important evidence about proposed changes to our justice system – scheduled to take place irrespective of the outcome of next year’s referendum.

Responding to the proposed abolition of the corroboration requirement, the Society’s Criminal Law Committee reiterated our clear view that such a move could be hugely damaging and, without the introduction of alternative safeguards, lead to an increased risk of miscarriages of justice.

The week after Scotland’s most senior judge, Lord Gill, recommended that corroboration should be taken out of the Criminal Justice Bill and looked at separately, the Society restated our support for a review of the law. But more than that, we made clear our intention to help identify a way forward that takes account of the differing views on this complex issue. We believe it is not too late to find a better solution, which considers the sometimes competing needs of victims, witnesses and those accused of a crime.

The Society has invited a number of key groups for and against abolition – including Rape Crisis Scotland, Victim Support Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and the Faculty of Advocates – to come together early in the new year to consider the wider and longer-term issues that must be addressed before corroboration can be removed, or perhaps retained in limited circumstances, as in other jurisdictions. Nobody doubts that improvements could and should be made to the justice system; I am hopeful progress can be made.

On with the debate

As I write, I am still making my way through the 670 pages of the white paper, Scotland’s Future, but an initial read did allow me to establish whether answers had been given to the questions posed by the Society in our well-received discussion paper on Scotland’s constitutional future.

Rather than rehearse the Scottish Government’s position on issues such as currency, EU membership, parliamentary reform and the Supreme Court, it is fair to describe the white paper as a detailed document that will add greatly to the debate. While some degree of clarity has been achieved, key questions still need to be answered – by both the Scottish and UK Governments. The Society is considering the considerable volume of information in the paper and will provide a detailed written response to the Scottish Government in due course.

At home and abroad

On a quite separate matter, we have been working closely with the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission and others, including consumer interests, to review aspects of the current complaints system. We are clear that improvements could be made around the eligibility stage, conduct service hybrid complaints and appeal processes, and have written on behalf of the review group to the Scottish Government, setting out the legislative changes required to make the system quicker and slicker.

Regulation of Scotland’s solicitors has attracted recent media attention, including a documentary due to broadcast early next month. We hope that the Society’s commitment to openness and transparency, as well as efficiency, will be reflected. We, of course, continue to work hard to prevent problems arising in the first place – setting robust standards, fit and proper testing of all wishing to enter the profession, proactively inspecting hundreds of firms each year, setting requirements for training and professional development, and intervening when we have concerns about client funds.

Last month, I was extremely disheartened that a high-level delegation from the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute was blocked from entering Sri Lanka for a conference on the rule of law and independence of the legal profession.This was to be hosted by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka but had to be cancelled. We join with our colleagues from the IBA, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and numerous other bar associations to send a message of solidarity to our Sri Lankan colleagues and to condemn the continued refusal of their Government to recognise human rights and the rule of law.

To round off, a brief mention of three items from November’s Council meeting. A very comprehensive report on fair access to the legal profession generated an engaged and wide-ranging debate and will lead to a broad programme of work, more on which in the coming months. I was delighted that there were three excellent nominations for election as the Society’s next Vice President (Christine McLintock, David Newton and Jane McEachran), along with that of Alistair Morris as next year’s President.

Lastly, a consultation exercise on moving towards e-voting for Council elections was warmly approved and is now underway. We know from past surveys that there is overwhelming support for this; it is important though that such support comes through in the consultation responses, which are due by 17 January.

Bruce Beveridge is President of
the Law Society of Scotland e: Bruce Beveridge@lawscot.org.uk

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