Monday, June 23, 2008

Lawyers reply to Law Society 'standards consultation' - less standards please

The Law Society of Scotland's consultation on standards suffered from a lack of replies from Scotland's 10,500 solicitors ... nevertheless it didn't stop the Law Society coming up with a few replies of its own !

The Scotsman reports :

Those who want to wear badge of solicitor respond to new standards

By Jennifer Veitch

MORE than 100 responses have been received so far in the Law Society's flagship consultation to set new standards of service and behaviour for solicitors.

The regulatory body has produced draft guidelines on the appropriate standards of service and conduct that those who want to wear the "badge of solicitor" must uphold.

As well as updating the broad principles that all Scottish solicitors should follow, the review aims to clarify the level of service that the public can expect from lawyers.

The society hopes that the standards – which could be in place by the end of this year – will help to prepare the profession for the new complaints-handling system, due to begin when the new Scottish Legal Complaints Commission opens in October.

Clearer standards about service may help solicitors to communicate with clients and to manage expectations of the services that they will – and will not – provide. Recently, the Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman highlighted a lack of clarity surrounding the level of service offered to clients, particularly in conveyancing cases.

And, as competition is likely to increase following the vote in favour of moving towards alternative business structures, a new set of standards may also help to inform the public about the benefits of instructing a solicitor.

Philip Yelland, the society's head of regulation, said the standards would not offer a check-list for how solicitors should conduct their business, but should make expectations clearer for all concerned.

"We want to try to help clarify and make clearer for the users or potential users of legal services just what the standards they might expect are," he said. "In terms of service, we are going to be talking about very broad principles because every business does things slightly differently, but there are core issues in terms of service standards which need to dealt with.

He added: "What we are doing here is not producing a tick-list of things. We are trying to look at what's there and say: how can we improve this, how we can make it better so someone going in to a solicitor's office has a better understanding of what might happen?"

Yelland said he expected that the new standards would also help solicitors when faced with service complaints, soon to be dealt with by the new commission.

"The standards that will be set and the way they will be articulated will be very broad principles, and from that perspective if there is a complaint, I would expect the solicitor would have to show the commission – 'if that's the broad principle, this is how I met the broad principle'."

A group has been set up to develop the consultation, chaired by Dr Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland.

Cohen has been keen to ensure that the review takes on board the views of vulnerable groups such as children and young people, and Yelland said further work to clarify standards for specialist legal services may arise from the consultation.

"There may be other things that flow out of this – for example, solicitors who are dealing with children," Yelland said.

"That is a very different market to dealing with adults. There are issues around language and the way you deal with them, and there may be things that fall out of the consultation that will enable us to look at particular areas and how we might deal with them differently."

The consultation responses will be reviewed over the summer with a final set of standards expected to be presented to solicitors at the society's Special General Meeting in September. If approved by the SGM, Yelland noted that the new standards could be in place by the end of the year.

"The reality is that what we are saying is not new – you could argue we are reviewing and restating and improving the wording on what people are already doing. But if there's part of the package that may become a practice rule, then that would need to be approved."

The new standards are being designed to work in tandem with existing rules on conduct and behaviour, in recognition of obligations not only to clients, but to the courts and the rest of the profession.

The draft standards on service are based on four broad principles – competence, communication, diligence and respect.

The standard of competence would require a solicitor to "know and apply the relevant law", "keep up-to-date" and "ensure that those to whom work is delegated are properly trained and supervised".

According to the draft standards, a solicitor would also have to consider "the nature and complexity" of any work, as well as whether he or she had the necessary knowledge and experience. Solicitors would also have to make an "ongoing commitment" to continuous professional development.

The communication standard would require solicitors to clearly explain and define services in letters of engagement, including costs and information on how complaints would be handled.

The standard on diligence would require the solicitor to "deliver on commitments, act in the best interests of each client, maintain and review systems of work and have prompt and transparent fee arrangements."

To uphold the standard on respect, solicitors would have to "treat each person as an individual" and "recognise diversity, different cultures and values".

Standards on conduct would reinforce the need for solicitors to be independent, giving advice "free from external influences or personal interests" and acting in the best interests of the client, balanced with their duties to the rest of the profession.

The draft conduct standards also cover conflict of interest, confidentiality, competence, communication and diversity.

Yelland added that he was pleased by the level of response to the consultation so far, but encouraged more lawyers and members of the public to take part in the consultation, which ends next Monday.

"The standards consultation is on the society's website, and we really want people – both solicitors and users of legal services – to fill it in. It looks at what is already in the Code of Conduct in terms of behaviour and the issues around service standards and asks people to confirm basically whether what we are thinking about saying is what they would expect.

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