Saturday, December 22, 2007

MacAskill's changing views on legal reform cause confusion, consternation among lawyers & clients alike

Scotland's Justice Secretary can't make his own mind up on anything these days, not least legal services reform ...

The only thing the current holder of the Justice portfolio in the Scottish Government has achieved is, amazingly, to veto an independent legal services regulator, at the behest of certain 'leading lights' at the Law Society. Anything else seems to be unachievable for now ... odd position to be in for an elected representative ?

The Herald reports :

Minister keeps alive chances of superstore lawyers


The Scottish Government has not ruled out the possibility of supermarket solicitors or legal firms run by people who are not lawyers, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said yesterday.

Third-party ownership of legal businesses are among the options being considered for reform of the Scottish legal system demanded by the Office of Fair Trading.

Currently, lawyers cannot go into partnership with non-lawyers, but the OFT believes consumers would benefit if these "alternative business structures" were overhauled.

This has raised the spectre of supermarkets offering legal services as they do with in-house pharmacies and optician services.

But Mr MacAskill affirmed his stance that Scotland will not be pushed into a new professional framework based on reforms in England and Wales.

After a meeting with Philip Collins, chair of the OFT, he made clear Scotland's legal profession had to change in the light of a changing marketplace, nationally and globally. However, a Scottish solution needed to be found, he said.

The controversy has been brewing since Which?, the magazine of the Consumers' Association, issued a complaint to the OFT that the legal set-up in Scotland disadvantaged the consumer, and called for reforms including a new supervisory body.

The government's response makes clear there are no plans to set up a new regulatory body like the Legal Services Board in England. But Mr MacAskill set out four possible models for multi-disciplinary practices and third-party entry to legal services.

They are - law firms with a minority of non-lawyer partners to assist in the management of the firm; law firms with a minority of non-lawyer partners offering alternative legal services; lawyers in a multi-disciplinary practice who are not in majority control; and third party ownership of legal businesses.

He said: "We consider some forms of alternative structures could well provide benefits to consumers."

But Which? campaigner Julia Clarke said: "This is a missed opportunity to put consumers at the heart of reforms. Unless an independent body is created to regulate lawyers consumers will be let down

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