Friday, August 10, 2007

Access to legal services reforms reveal extent of solicitors monopoly on legal services in Scotland

Rarely do we feature letters as articles, but today an exception, as respondents on both sides on both sides of the debate on reforms to access to legal services in Scotland tackle the issue in the letters section of the Herald newspaper.

Responses from members of the public & Which?, to the leading annoyances from the Scottish legal profession say it all ... Scots Law is badly needing reform, and its about time the Scottish Executive took the bull by the horns, rather than sitting on the fence. No Scottish solution please - rather a solution to put the public & the law on an equal footing, something long needed in Scots Law ...

It might also do Scots Law some good to have some newer leading annoyances from the legal profession rather than the same old hacks ... or is the membership still not up to doing anything more than striking for increased legal aid payments ?

The following letters from the Herald appear in order of latest, links in the titles :

Monopoly has put Scots law in the dock

So, Austin Lafferty (Letters, August 9) wishes the big, most successful, law firms, such as Dundas & Wilson "good luck", "in the commoditised end of Scots and supranational law". He then refers to "your readers", and the "more relevant point of how the profession serves them".

I welcome Scots firms competing internationally, but note that Mr Lafferty suggests only a few of our law firms are able to do so.

How about an analysis, Mr Lafferty, of how the legal profession in Scotland serves itself? In a truly enlightening statement, Mr Lafferty says the Law Society's chief executive, Douglas Mill's "priorities are to balance the interests of the whole legal profession, and, by statutory obligation, the whole of the Scottish public".

Can I, therefore, add to the public debate, and drop my pebble in the pond: let Douglas Mill reconcile some of his statements on public record with his statutory obligation. And what about the incredible treatment meted out to some members of the Scottish public who have made complaints to the Law Society about the actions of some of its members?

Perhaps they should consult a lawyer, but where can they find one who can act for them in Scotland and who is not a member of the Law Society of Scotland, and therefore subject to its regulatory and disciplinary regimen? They cannot even instruct an advocate without using a solicitor. If monopoly is by definition bad, then surely the present set-up within Scots law must be even worse.

If Tesco, or any other retailer, sells goods not fit for purpose, the customer can readily obtain appropriate recompense. Does the same hold true if they seek to purchase, but fail to receive, competent legal services in Scotland? Not only the retail provision, but the whole functioning of Scots law is now in the dock; put there by a public that has almost completely lost faith in its integrity.

If Scotland is to compete internationally, it needs an internationally competitive legal system. We don't appear to have that currently. Why not?

Bryan H Stuart, Pitmachie, Insch.

The Law Society of Scotland has let its standards slip. There should be much more than a "glass wall" between the clients of a law practice. At present multinational companies spread their workload around the large law practices. They, in turn, delegate this workload to the smaller firms.

The end result is that it can prove impossible to employ a lawyer who is not financially dependent on the company that you find yourself up against. Initially, you thought that you were up against an individual, but then you discover that it is the tentacles of their octopus holding company that has farmed out work to all the major law firms and their "associate" small firms that you are up against. This makes a mockery of our justice system. There has to be a limit to the number of law firms that one company is allowed to employ - otherwise we have no justice system.

Niall Barker, 5 Grosvenor Crescent, Glasgow.

Mike Dailly of Govan Law Centre (Letters, August 3) made some unfounded and inaccurate criticisms of Which? and its recent super-complaint to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) regarding the structure of the Scottish legal profession. We provided evidence to the OFT that the current system is failing consumers, with lack of competition stifling innovation and resulting in higher prices and lower levels of service.

Mr Dailly claimed the complaint was both "reckless" and lacking in evidence, which is simply untrue. Which? does not take its powers lightly and, as such, carries out rigorous research and analysis before submitting a super-complaint. Indeed, the OFT itself said that Which? made such a strong case for reform that "taking no action is not an available option". The OFT has now made recommendations to the Scottish Executive and the legal professions in Scotland to lift the restrictions that could be causing harm to consumers.

As to Which? "overstating its authority", Mr Dailly again has his facts wrong. Which? is not only the largest consumer organisation in the UK, but also the largest in Europe and does indeed have more than 650,000 members. This includes more than 500,000 subscribers to Which? Magazine, which has a monthly readership of 1.63 million, and over 160,000 paid web subscribers. The figure of 10,500 ordinary members on our website refers to Which? members who are eligible to vote on how the organisation is run.

Which? has been campaigning on behalf of consumers for 50 years and strongly believes that if the Scottish Executive implements the OFT's recommendations, Scottish consumers will reap the benefits of a more customer-focused legal profession.

Nick Stace, Director of Campaigns and Communications, Which?, 2 Marylebone Road, London.

Unfair caricature of a legal profession

Although I am a member of the Council of the Law Society of Scotland and chair its Strategy Group, which is tasked with redefining the role of the solicitor in Scotland, I write in a personal capacity, principally as your average high-street lawyer. I respond to Ian Fraser's article (The Herald, August 6), reporting on the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) supercomplaint into the legal services market in Scotland.

The piece majored on our few megafirms such as Dundas & Wilson, which employ many lawyers in the commoditised end of Scots and supranational law. Their position broadly is that they welcome a shaking-up of the legal market, to let them create a better platform to compete against firms south of Scotland - ie, London.

So far so good. As the big few firms have grown, they must look beyond this nation to spread their wings, and good luck to them. However, the article failed to address the wider and, for most of your readers, more relevant point of how the profession serves them.

Not all of us want to act for Marks & Spencer, or Aberdeen Asset Management or the Queen. And, in limiting the scope of your argument, the impression I got was that our chief executive, Douglas Mill, was being cast as Canute QC holding back the waves while saying the OFT should not pass.

This is unfair. Mr Mill's priorities are to balance the interests of the whole legal profession, and, by statutory obligation, the whole of the Scottish public.

Mr Mill's comments were as accurate as they were relevant in the wider question of the place of the legal profession in Scotland.

It was pleasing that you reported Mr Mill's reference to the ongoing dialogue the profession has with, among others, the Scottish Executive, to find ways forward that are mutually beneficial to the profession and the public.

I do not believe that the quotes from senior big-firm solicitors reflect the relationship of the whole profession with the buying public or with the Law Society of Scotland. It is wrong to say that the legal market is like any other, and that the Law Society is kidding itself and must up its game. The English are waking up to the fact that they are about to be legislated into a cocked hat. This is the reason the supercomplaint is premature.

Certainly we must be competitive - against others of equal professionalism. Certainly we must be accountable and give value for money (we do). And the world has changed and the legal profession must adapt (we are adapting). But to caricature the profession, the Law Society and the chief executive as somehow resisting proper change is not right.

Lawyers are habitually portrayed as self-serving dealers of legal cards they keep close to their chest. The hint is that deregulation will somehow bring us to heel. But the reality is this: just as you want your daughter's ruptured spleen taken out by a highly-trained medic, not by the checkout person at Tesco, neither would you want your divorce handled by some bod whose credentials and training are not recognised as first class.

Austin Lafferty, 52 Bothwell Street, Glasgow.

Good legal services

Alan Campbell, managing partner of Dundas & Wilson, accuses those who oppose the Office of Fair Trading's recommendations for change of protecting vested interests in a closed shop (The Herald, August 6). He believes those who see the market for legal services as different in Scotland from England and Wales are "simply kidding themselves". The OFT does not agree, having noted "that the legal services market in Scotland is different from that in England and Wales. The OFT also considers that it is important to develop an appropriate Scottish solution to any perceived problems".

Mr Campbell notes that he and other representatives of big firms of solicitors are in total unanimity. In contrast, the Faculty of Advocates opposes the OFT proposals in so far as they would reduce the choice of legal advice available to consumers and would leave some consumers unlikely to be able to get access to justice at all. The faculty has a responsibility, as does the Law Society of Scotland, to consider the interests of justice as a whole. Mr Campbell states: "What we want is for lawyers to be able to share profits with non lawyers subject to suitable regulatory safeguards."

This is about much more than profits; this affects the delivery of good legal services to all in Scotland who need them, as well as reaching beyond Scotland in the commercial world. We in the faculty hope to be able to work with all concerned to modernise where necessary while keeping the administration of justice firmly at the forefront.

Valerie Stacey QC, Vice-Dean, Faculty of Advocates, Parliament House Edinburgh.

Unfair picture of Scotland’s legal profession

YOUR LETTERS August 03 2007

We live in strange times. Which? lodges a "super complaint" alleging "legal restrictions" in Scotland "work against consumers as they prevent lawyers from innovating to meet the needs of their customers". The OFT agrees. The solution is to allow banks and supermarkets to deliver innovative legal services. The Herald reports (August 2) that Halifax Legal Solutions will deliver discounted conveyancing, will preparation and a fee-charging website where you can prepare tenancy agreements and letters about faulty goods. There are a few problems here.

First, non-lawyers selling houses and winding up estates is old news. The Herald wrongly states that in Scotland only solicitors can undertake conveyancing and executries. The Scottish Conveyancing and Executry Services Board was re-established in 1995 to license non-solicitors to provide conveyancing and executry services. So unsuccessful was market take-up that the board was abolished in 2002 (though there are still licensed practitioners). The reality is conveyancing and executry services have never been more competitive.

Secondly, non-lawyers helping landlords prepare tenancy agreements is common. Lawpack (for use in England and Scotland) has a residential lettings kit for £14.99 - a lot cheaper than Halifax Legal Solutions; or Google "tenancy agreements Scotland" and you can access services online for less than half the price of Halifax's membership fee. As for letters for faulty goods, why should you pay anything when you can go into your local Citizens' Advice Bureau or trading standards department and get free help (also available online)?

Regrettably, these facts do not prevent Which? and the OFT riding roughshod over Scotland's legal profession. So-called legal restrictions are the jewel in our legal system's crown. Scotland's legal profession is part of our heritage. Yet Which? and the OFT want us to hand this over to UK banks. This in the week The Herald reports that banks may face a £1bn bill to compensate customers scammed by mortgage exit fees; and the Financial Services Authority slams banks for subjecting customers to lies, scams and threats when they have sought a refund of bank charges.

Which? and the OFT have no evidence for the reckless claims they are making. Moreover, Which? overstates its authority. On its website it claims to be the largest consumer body in the UK, with 650,000 members. That is untrue.

On closer inspection ( ), it is apparent it has 10,500 actual members. Govan Law Centre acts on behalf of Money and the These online communities have almost 1,500,000 actual members across the UK.

Mike Dailly, Principal Solicitor, Govan Law Centre, 47 Burleigh Street, Glasgow.

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