News In Focus
SLCC proposes £40 general levy increase
A 12.5% jump in the general levy for 2017-18, including a £40 rise from £316 to £356 for those paying at the full rate, is proposed by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission in its draft budget and operating plan, published today.
The SLCC blames the "twin pressures" of an increasing number of complaints against lawyers, and an increase in the number of appeals and litigation brought against it by the Law Society of Scotland following an Inner House ruling last year, for the planned rise.
It cites the 12% headline rise in complaints to 1,132, highlighted in its annual report for the year to 30 June 2016 – though the number of complaints accepted as eligible actually fell slightly, from 414 to 408.
Litigation in hand includes 19 appeals brought by the Society over whether the SLCC had power to reclassify complaints that previously contained allegations of professional misconduct, as relating to service only. This followed a Court of Session ruling last August that an individual complaint could not be classified as "hybrid", i.e. as containing both elements. The SLCC has declined an offer by the Society to present a special case to the court for a ruling on the issue.
The full levy is paid by around half of the legal practitioners who fund the SLCC. The rate for those in their first three years is to rise by £20 to £178, for advocates by £19 to £169, for those practising outwith Scotland by £13 to £116, and for in-house lawyers by £12 to £107.
The SLCC said the extra funding would be used to recruit new case workers to handle the increase in complaints, and to provide support for lawyers to help them understand the common causes of disputes in order to reduce the potential for complaints within their own practices. It will also continue to campaign for legislative reform, particularly in relation to legal complaints.
Chief executive Neil Stevenson commented: “We exist to ensure a fair deal for clients who may have been let down by legal professionals, but at the same time protect lawyers from spurious claims that may damage their reputation unfairly. We ended our most recent financial year on a positive note, with many aspects of performance improvements and a much greater understanding among the public of how the SLCC can help them. However, complaints have been rising and uncertainty and risk has been created by the recent court ruling.
"We must focus on efficiency, and this is reflected in our consultation, but legal complaints are often complex, time-consuming, and parties and the courts are rightly demanding of the reasoning and decision making set out in our decisions. In the face of these pressures our previous approach of reducing our reserves to subsidise the levy can no longer be maintained, and that means in order to continue serving the public properly we have no choice but to increase it.”
Chair Bill Brackenridge added: “We have worked hard to minimise the impact on consumers and lawyers alike, and recognise that increased costs are in no-one’s interests. The board considered all alternatives to increases; however, in the face of such unprecedented increases of workload and risks the SLCC faces we must consult on a budget and plan aimed at ensuring our core statutory functions can be delivered for the public and for the sector.
"Our hope is that by April, when we must finalise the budget in light of this consultation, there may be a lesser risk and uncertainty stemming from ongoing litigation and that we may be able to adjust budgets accordingly in relation to that area.”
Criticising the proposals, Eilidh Wiseman, President of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “At a time when the public sector is facing pressure to control its costs, it is unacceptable for the SLCC to come forward with such a substantial increase in its budget, a cost which must be funded entirely by the Scottish legal profession.
“If a council proposed a 12% rise in council tax, there would be fury. If a train operator proposed a 12% rise in its fares, there would be an outcry. In bringing forward a 12.5% rise, almost eight times the rate of inflation, the SLCC will face deep anger from a solicitor profession which is becoming increasingly concerned at the way the SLCC is operating. Consumers should also be concerned as it is clients who ultimately pay for the SLCC through solicitors’ fees.
“The SLCC talks of a 12% rise in the complaints it receives but this equates to an extra two to three complaints a week. We find it difficult to understand how this cannot be absorbed in existing budgets. Indeed, the Commission’s own figures show that almost two thirds of complaints received are ineligible and do not proceed. Therefore the recent increase in complaints cannot be justification for such a significant rise in the SLCC’s charging.
“With all the challenges facing the SLCC, it must focus on its core role as a complaints handling body. Other discretionary activity in its strategy which sits beyond its central role not only adds cost but distracts the SLCC from delivering the improvements it needs to make. This is why we will look carefully at its plans for the forthcoming year and consult with our members before responding formally to the consultation.”
Click here to access the full proposals. A consultation is open until 13 March 2017.