Monday, July 23, 2007

Law Society Chief Douglas Mill accused of "scaremongering" over proposed reforms to legal services in Scotland

It will be a cold day in hell when 'Clementi style' reforms to open up the legal services market are implemented in Scotland, if Douglas Mill has his wicked way with the current SNP controlled Scottish Executive who may lack the will of tackling & reforming the legal system & judiciary as was displayed by the Labour controlled Executive.

The SNP after attaing power in the May 2007 Holyrood Elections, then seemed to dither and change their minds slightly on implementing reforms to the legal services market here.

Today, both Scotland's major newspapers carry alternative stories on the impending implementation of at least some kind of reform to the way Scotland's solicitors handle their business, the Scotsman as ever opting for the legal profession's point of view, this time against the Which? "supercomplaint" made to the OFT over an alleged monopoly" on legal services in Scotland, while the Herald newspaper treads a more neutral & informative path, backed up with a rather strong view from the head of the Law Society of England & Wales, who believes Douglas Mill is trying to scare us all over Clementi - or as some call it - "Tesco Law".

Well, there's nothing to be scared about - that is if the reforms are handled properly .. but with Douglas Mill's finger on the button over at the Law Society's Headquarters at Drumsheugh Gardens, is it possible at all we will get a balanced approach to the issue of opening up markets to legal services in Scotland or are we to be plunged yet again into a solicitor v client attitude, which many within the profession now believe has contributed to the all time low public perception of Scotland's solicitors, ranking them among the likes of rapists & muggers.

Acceptance of these reforms may bring many advantages to the legal profession in Scotland rather than adopting a negative stance such as is being trumpted by the Dean of Faculty & Douglas Mill in the Scotsman version of this story ... ultimately, shouldn't it be the profession which decides the future of itself, rather than a couple of egos ?

You can read more about the Which? "supercomplaint" which has Douglas Mill & the Dean in a spin over in today's Scotsman here here and the article written by giving Messrs. Mill & Martin's well known views against opening the legal markets, in the Scotsman here

Law Society chief accused of scaremongering over reforms

IAN FRASER July 23 2007 (The Herald)

The chief executive of the Law Society of England and Wales has attacked Scotland's lawyers for being "unjustifiably negative" in their stance on the Clementi reforms currently passing through Parliament, and accused his Scottish counterpart of "scaremongering".

The Law Society of Scotland is against the Clementi reforms, claiming they would enable criminal gangs to own law firms and use them as money-laundering vehicles.

But in an interview with The Herald, Des Hudson, who became the Law Society's chief executive in September 2006, said the proposed reforms would include a number of specific safeguards to protect the integrity of the profession, including a "fit to own" test to bar the entry of criminal elements.

Hudson said: "There are plenty of comprehensive provisions within the Legal Services Bill to control against that (law firms coming under the ownership of criminals). You can have statutory provisions on the fitness and suitability of anyone seeking to own a firm, such as you already have with newspapers I'm afraid that I find the arguments of the Law Society of Scotland unpersuasive."

Asked if he felt that Law Society of Scotland chief executive Douglas Mill was "scaremongering" by whipping up fears that law firms would become vehicles for underworld gangs, Hudson replied: "Yes".

But he added: "I'm sure that Douglas Mill is acting in accordance with the policy of the Law Society of Scotland We respect their right to make up their own minds about this."

The Legal Services Bill, expected to be enacted this December, will usher in a radical deregulation of the legal profession, permitting solicitors' firms in England and Wales to go into business with other professionals such as barristers and accountants, to have external shareholders and to float on the stock market. Due to take effect in 2010, the reforms have been welcomed in England and Wales, not least because they will enable the partners in law firms to finance expansion.

In Scotland, however, the reforms look unlikely to see the light of day, partly because of opposition from the Law Society of Scotland and a lack of appetite at the Scottish Executive.

The Edinburgh-based lawyers' professional body's suggestion that style reforms would permit law firms to come under the ownership of criminal gangs has caused the latest spat between the two professional bodies for solicitors north and south of the border.

English counterpart says arguments against Clementi proposals are ‘unpersuasive’

In an interview published in a law journal last week, Mill warned: "There hasn't been any consideration given to how these people are regulated or whether they are even regulatable. (It) could end up like the Liberian flag on your merchant shipping: We don't do health and safety here'."

He later told The Herald: "The Law Society of England & Wales is no longer a regulator and now concentrates on representing the interests of its members. We are a regulator and our fear is that in the drive to open up the legal services market, there has been scant regard given to the regulatory aspect.

"We are not opposed to change but, as the Scottish profession's regulatory body, the Society must take into account the wider public interest and we are obliged to ensure that any changes to the way legal firms operate continue to provide the same protections that members of the public currently have.

"We have been part of the debate on alternative business structures and the proposals put forward by Sir David Clementi since its earliest days. There are a number of different proposals and business models currently under discussion and we want to ensure that whatever changes are made to legislation, these competing interests are taken into account.

"The Society is also consulting with the profession to gain solicitors' views on the Legal Services Bill and is actively encouraging debate among our members."

However, some Scottish lawyers belief failure to embrace Clementi will lead to a brain drain' south. One senior Scottish lawyer said that, if such a mass migration did happen, it would "effectively bankrupt the Law Society of Scotland", as the professional body is dependent on the subscriptions from large corporate law firms and the thousands of lawyers they employ for a significant portion of its revenue.

Another fear expressed by Mill is that "Tesco Law" will decimate smaller solicitors' firms in high streets across Scotland, risking reduced access to justice.

Indeed commercial enterprises are already gearing up to capitalise on Clementi by offering commoditised legal services such as will-writing and conveyancing over the internet at significant discounts to the traditional high street law firms.

Hudson, a former chief executive of ICAS and SMG Publishing, said: "Tesco and the Co-op are already providing that sort of service. They've shown they have no need for either Clementi or McClementi to do that. I suspect this means the border is going to be porous irrespective of the protectiveness of the Law Society of Scotland's stance on that."

Alistair Morris, chief executive of Fife-based law firm Pagan Osbourne, said the commoditisation of certain areas of the law is already happening and he urged the Scottish Executive to introduce Clementi reforms, to rid Scots' law of its "anachronistic culture".

The Legal Services Bill is already having an impact on the Law Society of England and Wales even before it has entered the statute list. In anticipation, it has divided itself into three separate bodies. The Leamington Spa-based Legal Complaints Service handles complaints against solicitors, a body whose role is expected to be assumed by the new Statutory Office of Legal Complaints after 2010.

The Solicitors' Regulation Authority has taken over responsibility for regulating, setting standards and disciplining solicitors. And the Law Society proper has now shrunk to being the representative body for solicitors - effectively a trade union rather than a regulator.

In May 2007, the consumers' organisation Which? asked the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the Scottish legal profession's restrictions on business structures and access.

In its complaint, Which? said: "We are of the view that, subject to the necessary safeguards being established, a similar regulatory arrangement can be devised for Scotland to allow for non-lawyer entry to the Scottish legal services market.

"We are of the opinion that third-party involvement in this market is central to ensuring that the competitiveness of the market is maintained in the long term."

The OFT says it expects to issue a response within the next 10 days.

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