Friday, November 30, 2007

Law Society sponsored MSPs demand protection for lawyers monopoly on access to justice

In a strange, dangerous alliance, elements of the SNP and Conservative party joined forces at the Scottish Parliament to demand that access to justice reforms are killed off, thus protecting the monopoly on access to legal services held for decades by members of the Law Society of Scotland.

Clearly as we have reported before, there are elements within the Parliament too close to the legal profession to be of any value in an impartial debate. Indeed, as we covered earlier HERE, words used by the likes of Bill Aitken, the Tory Justice Committee Convener at the Scottish Parliament, were almost an effort to control and limit the scope of the legal services debate ...

The Herald reports :

MSPs voice opposition to major deregulation for legal services


Members of the Scottish Parliament have expressed their desire to protect Scottish legal services from the full blast of market forces, apparently disregarding some of the views of the Office of Fair Trading.

In a wide-ranging debate on the legal services market held in the Holyrood parliament, a number of leading MSPs stressed their opposition to the idea of non-legal players being allowed to provide legal advice in Scotland or to own law firms.

This is at odds with what is about to happen in England and Wales. Following the Clementi Review and the Legal Services Act, which gained Royal assent last month, English law firms have been given a green light from 2011 to form practices with other professionals, such as barristers and accountants. They will also be allowed to attract external investment or list on the stock exchange.

However, justice secretary Kenny MacAskill said wholesale deregulation along these lines was inappropriate for Scotland's smaller legal services market.

MacAskill, who practised as a solicitor for 20 years, made clear his preference for a softly-softly approach to reform. He told the parliament: "We will not preside over any diminution in the quality and integrity of the Scottish legal profession The badge of Scottish solicitor or advocate has always carried an assurance of professionalism, which I am determined to maintain."

"Alongside the church and the education system, the legal profession has formed one of the fundamental pillars of Scottish identity It is perhaps not going too far to say that, were it not for the strength and independence of the Scottish legal profession, we would not be having today's debate.

MacAskill added: "The legal profession is a key part of our institutional framework Lawyers help people at times of crisis and bereavement, they protect the rights of the vulnerable, and they support business and economic growth Therefore, I will defend the legal profession against those who malign and misrepresent it."

There are few solicitors I would wish to see complete a tax return ...

However, the MSP Paul Martin advised the government that it should not only be listening to the views of the legal profession. He urged it to also work closely with consumer organisations.

The debate, held on November 15 but previously unreported, was partly a response to the upholding by the Office of Fair Trading of a super-complaint from the consumer group Which? on restrictions on business structures and direct access in the Scottish legal profession. It was also related to a consultation on alternative business structures being overseen by the Law Society of Scotland.

MacAskill said: "We are considering carefully everything that the OFT has said. We agree that change needs to happen, but I have no intention of adopting a model that is unsuited to our needs as a country. Our geography, demography and topography are different from those of England."

In a nod to the larger corporate firms in Scotland, who are universally deeply concerned that the Scottish Government looks as if it might constrain their growth through a failure to implement Clementi-style reforms, MacAskill said: "Senior and respected figures in the profession are already identifying how reforms might create new opportunities. At this stage I do not intend to limit their thinking, but I will set out the tests that I will apply to determine whether the proposals that come forward meet Scotland's needs."

"New business structures may be helpful - for example, if they allow a firm to offer a wider range of services. However, there are dangers in moving in a single step to a wholly open market, and we should not allow new entrants from outside the profession unless access and quality can be maintained."

Fergus Ewing, the minister for community safety, was particularly disparaging about the virtues of multi-disciplinary partnerships (MDPs). He said: "The argument for having a one-stop shop has illusory attractions. There are few solicitors I would wish to see complete a tax return, and few chartered accountants I would wish to see conduct litigation. I do not think that I am maligning either profession when I make that general, sweeping observation."

However Christopher Harvie, an academic and author who is now an SNP MSP, warned against petty protectionism. "We should not have a defensive attitude - we should find out what we can learn from, for example, the notariat system in Europe as a means of simplifying domestic law.

The Tory MSP John Lamont also warned that the Scottish legal profession needs to become much more open in allowing solicitors who qualified elsewhere to practise here. "Unless our legal profession can be accessed by the most able lawyers from throughout Scotland and around the world, we will not fulfil our ambition to enable our legal profession to compete on the international stage."

Pauline McNeill said that politicians must retain control over how the legal profession is regulated. "An independent regulatory framework that lies within our democratic control and not just market control will mean that we can balance the interests of firms and businesses with those of the consumer and of standards.

She also said she did not want to see the parliament being rushed into making decisions about the legal profession's future, saying: "We should proceed at our own pace."

McNeill added: "Social justice issues and widening access for consumers should be at the heart of the debate. Forcing Scotland to go down the same road as England for its own sake is not the best approach. All the OFT recommendations are beginning to sound like proposals for a completely free market. Having considered the matter, I am almost certain that that is the wrong approach to take."

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