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Society challenges Executive line on compensation

6 March 2006

High street legal firms offering traditional consumer services in areas such as conveyancing and family law could close their doors to the public if the Executive's new bill to regulate the legal profession is passed in its present form, the Law Society of Scotland has warned.

Last November the Society, in a change of position, publicly backed the concept of an independent body to handle complaints against Scottish solicitors of inadequate professsional services (IPS). The Executive's Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill, published last week, provides for such a body, to be known as the Scottish Legal Services Complaints Commission, but the Society believes the proposals to be flawed.

In a BBC radio interview, and writing in today's Herald newspaper, Chief Executive Douglas Mill said he was particularly concerned at the proposed power to award compensation of up to £20,000. This compares with the current maximum the Society can award of £5,000, itself raised only last year from the £1,000 limit when the IPS regime was introduced in 1990.

"Draconian penalty"

Mr Mill said he knew of no other profession in Scotland where there was "such a draconian penalty", and questioned whether the figure was chosen to match the limit for England and Wales proposed by the Westminster government - "when we were promised Scottish solutions for Scottish issues".

Pointing out that if a client suffers loss due to a solicitor's negligence, this is already covered by compulsory professional insurance, he said it would not be in the interests of consumers, or of access to justice, if local law firms were force to close, or restrict the type of work they took on, for fear of attracting complaints.

The Society is also concerned over how independent the new body will be if appointed directly by ministers, and at the lack of provision for appeal from its decisions. Invoking the Society's duty to represent the profession and the public interest in relation to the profession, Mr Mill said it would be in no-one's interest if the new system unravelled what the Society's own system currently achieves, "for no apparent benefit".

Ombudsman's concerns

The retiring Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman, whose post will be abolished by the bill, has welcomed the £20,000 figure and even queried whether it should be higher, in line with the Financial Ombudsman Service. Mrs Linda Costelloe Baker however believes the bill contains a recipe for confusion in that conduct complaints will continue to be referred to the Law Society of Scotland - she estimates that 30% of all complaints she sees contain elements of both conduct and service.