The past month has been one of significant publications from the Society – on the referendum debate, on legal aid contracting, on vulnerable clients and those with a disability
By the time this goes to print, the holiday season will be winding down – and I hope many of you will have managed to get a hard-earned break (I’ll get mine next year!). The Society has been working hard through the summer to drive forward a number of key issues.
Behind the scenes, considerable effort has gone into responding to the question of Scotland’s constitutional future. Given that in little over a year’s time we will be asked to decide whether Scotland should become an independent country or remain part of the UK – potentially the most significant constitutional change in 300 years – it is important that the Society uses the considerable expertise and experience at its disposal to contribute to the debate, as it gathers momentum.
A two-year plan was put together by our constitutional working group last autumn. From this emerged a series of round table stakeholder events earlier this year, which heard the views of solicitors and a wide range of others on the implications of both a “yes” and a “no” vote. As one would expect, our committees have provided invaluable input, considering in detail the impact of constitutional change on areas of law such as tax, pensions, employment, equalities and many more.
Focusing on issues where we feel we can make a contribution – membership of the EU and other international organisations, the economy and business, Scotland’s judicial and parliamentary system, and the implications of a “no” vote – the Society has produced a comprehensive discussion document, which was launched early this month.
While remaining firmly neutral on the issue of independence, further devolution or the status quo, we believe that the debate on constitutional change should be worthy of the question, when it is asked next year. It should also be informed, informative and respectful. The Society’s discussion paper – which asks challenging questions of both the Scottish and UK Governments – aims to encourage that process. We urge members to give their feedback (by the end of September), which will help shape a final position paper to be published later in the year.
Contracting: Informing the debate
Elsewhere, extensive work has gone into providing the profession with detailed information on another key issue, contracting in criminal legal aid, the results of which were published late last month. The research paper, available on the Society’s website, examines the history, development and operation of contracting models in several other jurisdictions around the world.
Government has yet to bring forward clear proposals, and until then the Society cannot form a concluded view on contracting. However, given that it could result in such a huge shift in the delivery of legal aid, it is essential we are fully aware of the potential benefits and risks. We must also ensure that any proposed reforms are underpinned by access to justice, and do not disadvantage those accused of crimes and the defence solicitors who represent them.
Alongside feedback from solicitors on the research, the Society is hosting a series of dialogue events with members. The Scottish Legal Aid Board has been invited to explain to the profession the background and context for contracting. I have attended each of the three events held so far in Dumfries, Perth and Edinburgh. Unfortunately, I cannot attend the last remaining event in Glasgow.
The geographical differences in this sector of the profession are clear, and one size definitely does not fit all, but hopefully there will be a good turnout. I would certainly encourage folk to attend and to speak freely. The events are intended to provide a forum as much for the members of the profession to inform the Board, as for the Board to inform them. We understand that the Board is due to submit its advice to the Scottish Government by around October.
On another topic, although most solicitors need no reminding, the importance of meeting the needs of every client was highlighted in three new guides produced by the Society. Our first e-book (also available in PDF format), Ensuring fairness, creating more accessible services, is designed to help solicitors comply with the Equality Act when providing services to people with a disability. Our guidance on continuing and welfare powers of attorney has been updated following recommendations from the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland. And new guidance on vulnerable clients indicates how to respond to clients who may be at risk of impaired capacity or subject to undue influence.
Last, but by no means least, the Society’s consultation on the rule change that would bring about separate representation of borrowers and lenders in property transactions closed during the past month. We are analysing the responses before bringing forward a specific rule change to next month’s special general meeting. I would urge all members with an interest to attend and join in what will be an extremely important debate – and cast their vote.
Bruce Beveridge is President of the Law Society of Scotland