Visiting local faculties, and engaging with UK and Scottish ministers, has enabled the Society to voice members' concerns direct to government
Meetings and correspondence with government in the past month have allowed the Society to ensure that the voice of Scottish solicitors is heard in key areas of decision-making.
We received a welcome invitation from the UK Government for our views ahead of the Budget statement on 19 March. We stressed to the Secretary of State for Scotland that efforts must be made to boost the still-sluggish economy and provide more support to struggling law firms, particularly on the high street.
As well as additional measures to accelerate growth, we suggested the Chancellor provide an internationally competitive tax regime to attract investment, and take action to encourage banks to improve the lending environment, particularly for small and medium-sized companies. A continued focus on removing unnecessary regulation on business, while maintaining core protections, would help smaller employers maintain or increase staff levels. Further incentives might be introduced to encourage hiring or employee development. We reiterated concerns the Society has previously expressed about the proposed changes to the partnership rules in the Finance Bill, which are complex and could indirectly discriminate Scottish solicitors. We await the Budget statement with interest.
Scottish Government engagement
Also on the economy, following up a request I had made, Lorna Jack and I sat down with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, John Swinney. This was the first time he had met with the Society; hopefully it will become a standing feature of our engagement with government. We discussed the current economic health of the profession, where the challenges lay, the need to recognise the broader economic impact of policies that lie in other portfolios – such as court closures and legal aid – and the importance of ensuring that the review of procurement allows smaller businesses the opportunity to bid for government work.
Then, the day after the Holyrood debate over the abolition of the corroboration requirement – which he acknowledged was rowdy – Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill addressed Council members at our annual awayday. As well as promising that a “veritable brains trust” of the legal profession would ensure the best possible safeguards to protect against miscarriages of justice in the absence of corroboration, he responded to questions on a range of issues.
While recognising the need to invest in the justice system, for instance through the legal aid budget, he was clear that no additional money is currently available. However, he stressed he had an open mind on the question of contracting in criminal legal aid, and also on the issue of improving access to the profession. He assured Council members that his door was open to listen, engage and discuss matters of importance with the solicitors’ profession, an invitation we are happy to accept.
On the road
The impact of the economy and of reforms to the justice system are issues of real concern to the profession, as was again clear during faculty meetings last month in Elgin, Banff, Peterhead, Aberdeen, Perth, Dundee and Edinburgh. Matters raised varied, but the effects of court closures, patchy access to justice, legal aid changes and the removal of solicitors from conveyancing panels were, unsurprisingly, common concerns. While there are signs of increased economic activity, the past few years have been tough for many, often those who play such a vital role in local communities.
As ever, I was delighted to be able to meet with local solicitors. I wish I could spend more time doing that around Scotland; I greatly enjoy the discussions and feel very fortunate to attract so much time out of people’s relentlessly pressured days. I am grateful for all the feedback and assure members that the Society will continue to take forward the issues raised.
I also managed to attend the Aberdeen Law Project annual lecture, delivered by Lord Hope of Craighead, at the University of Aberdeen. This is a genuinely transformational and wholly student-driven project, and the 140 or so student advisers, as well as those who assist behind the scenes (some were presented with awards for their achievements), deserve recognition for their hard work and commitment.
I am completing this column having just returned from the annual European law society and bar leaders’ conference. A great opportunity to sell next April’s Commonwealth Law Conference in Glasgow (organisation progresses apace), the main business topic was data privacy in an era dominated by Facebook (et al) and “Big Data”. It covered issues around effective regulation, and emphasised the differences of views amongst EU bars. Some take a conservative approach, and one proposed that lawyers should be prohibited from using Facebook. (I was following our Council awayday on Twitter as that debate evolved.)
It was also great to see former Society President Ruthven Gemmell there. Following his recent election as a vice president of the CCBE, he is due to become the first UK solicitor to preside over the body that represents more than one million lawyers across Europe.
Bruce Beveridge is President of the Law Society of Scotland