Friday, May 23, 2008

Legal firms 'vote' for opening legal services market but obstacles & lengthy delays remain

Despite the seething tempers of the Law Society of Scotland's leadership who favour continuation of the closed market of legal services in Scotland, some 850 solicitors voted to open up the market at Thursday's Law Society of Scotland Annual General Meeting.

While there remain many obstacles to overcome before legislation which would allow such a move is put forward, and no doubt much more interference, perhaps the odd bout of prevarication, delay and a few spanners thrown in the works from the 'old guard' of the Law Society, Scots will one day enjoy more of a choice in their selection of legal representatives than what is currently on offer.

The closed shop gang, which may include Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, still have some powerful friends in Parliament though, so don't expect things to run too smoothly or quickly on this one ... delay and filibuster will be the order of the day, perhaps taking a leaf out of the seventeen year wait to implement Sections 25-29 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1990, which sought to do much the same ... only being brought into law in March 2007 !

The Herald reports :

Legal firms vote to back historic ‘Tesco law’ partnership

LUCY ADAMS, Chief Reporter

Supermarkets and banks could run or work in partnership with Scottish legal firms in future, following a "historic" vote taken by more than 1000 lawyers last night.

Some 853 solicitors voted in favour of opening up the legal services market yesterday following consultation on what has been dubbed "Tesco Law".

Most of the votes were cast by proxy, but only 152 voted against the move at the Law Society of Scotland's annual meeting.

The decision, which could lead to external ownership of law firms, partnerships between solicitors and non-solicitors, and organisations such as banks and supermarkets providing legal services including conveyancing and will-writing, will require further consultation before being put forward for legislation.

The move follows the lodging of a "super complaint" with the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) 12 months ago by Which?, the consumer watchdog, which said the current regulation of Scottish legal firms was hindering competition in the market, restricting choice and pushing up prices.

Kenny MacAskill was obliged to act after the OFT upheld the calls for a reform of Scotland's legal services market.

Following the Clementi Review in England and Wales, legislation was introduced to open up legal services there. This will be enacted in 2010 and both the AA and the Co-op have already moved to establish legal services companies.

Richard Henderson, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said: "This is a historic decision. The profession has been asked by the Scottish Government to decide on its future direction and I think that we have risen to that challenge today by voting in favour of change.

"There has been a great deal of thought and discussion surrounding alternative business structures. The society's council consulted the profession and it was apparent from the responses that there was an appetite for change within the legal profession."

He added: "This is only the first step in what will be a lengthy journey. The society will continue to work closely with its members from across all sectors of the profession, the government and other stakeholders to ensure that any future reforms will benefit those who require legal services and that access to justice remains central. A crucial part of developing successful and workable new policies will be to ensure that those providing legal services are properly regulated and work to the professional standards expected of them."

The debate around so-called "alternative business structures" has proven deeply divisive among lawyers. There are fears that many small Scots firms could be wiped out by a competitive free-for-all and that permitting external ownership could compromise professional integrity.

The OFT believes a "fit-to-own" test would safeguard the integrity of legal services delivery and claims many small firms and sole practitioners will actually benefit from outside investment.

Mr MacAskill said: "I am pleased that Law Society members have accepted the proposals presented to the AGM and I look forward to working with the profession in the coming months to implement these proposals.

"This is an exciting time and there will be great benefits for those who take advantage of the opportunities these proposals provide."

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