Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Law Society’s ‘nobbled’ referendum match on legal services reform likely to end up in a scrum at Murrayfield

ian smartLaw Society’s Ian Smart. MURRAYFIELD STADIUM, Thursday 25 March, 10am might be worth an attendance to see the Govan Law Centre’s Mike Dailly (wannabe scrumhalf ?) have a go at the Law Society President Ian Smart (well-placed, keen hooker ?) during the Special General Meeting on the future of legal services reform in Scotland. The SGM has been called by the Scottish Law Agents Society (SLAS), which wants the Society to change the current policy of supporting alternative business structures (ABS), which members voted for at its 2008 AGM, to one opposing their introduction so we dont get abs and clients dont get the chance to go anywhere other than a solicitor for legal services.

In addition to the SGM, and Mike Dailly calling yet again for the resignation of Ian Smart, there is a nobbled ‘secret ballot referendum’, being run independently by the Electoral Reform Service, to encourage as many solicitors as possible to vote on ABS, and on whether the Society should regulate new business models. The referendum, which runs from 23 March to 7 April will allow the Society's Council to determine its future policy on ABS.

Ian Smart, president of the Society, said: “The Council was conscious that the critics of the result of the 2008 AGM continued to claim that the vote was not representative of the profession. The Council decided that in anticipation of high numbers of proxies again, which is a feature of Law Society general meetings, the vote at this special general meeting could attract the same criticism and concluded by a vote that a referendum of all members, one solicitor-one vote where there can be no proxy voting, would reflect the clear majority view of the profession.

"This means we are asking our members to vote twice, both in the referendum and at Thursday's SGM. The Society’s Council will then decide on a future policy in light of both votes and the respective levels of participation.

“The Legal Services (Scotland) Bill proposes major change and it's vital that solicitors fully consider what the government’s proposals could mean for their businesses and whether they should choose to continue as a traditional solicitors’ practice. There will be no compulsion for solicitors to change how they do business but there are a number of Scottish firms, many of which operate on a UK-wide and international basis, who want to be able to adapt to continue to meet the requirements of their clients, and to operate on a level playing field with their competitors in England and Wales.

“We want solicitors in Scotland to have opportunities now and in the future, to be able to thrive in Scotland and further a field, but not at the expense of independence, core values and principles, the very things that have given the Scottish legal profession such an enviable reputation.

“We have pressed hard for changes to the Bill. As a result we have won concessions from Community Safety Minister, Fergus Ewing, to drop parts of section 92 and with it remove any or even potential, government intervention in the appointment of lay members to the Society’s Council, and from the Justice Committee, which in its stage 1 report has recommended amendments to ensure that any ABS must have a fidelity fund equivalent to the existing Guarantee Fund and the continuation of existing consumer protections.

Mr Smart added: “There are several types of new business models that do not seem to have met with any major resistance from solicitors but we know there are genuine fears about the impact of external ownership or funding of law firms, their regulation and whether the independence of solicitors working there could be compromised.

“That is an important discussion for the profession to have and the Society is asking for members’ views in the current consultation on the types of models that could be permitted and how they should be regulated. I hope for a good debate on Thursday and that there is opportunity to examine and address some of the concerns that some of our members continue to have about the Bill’s proposals."

For those of you who have forgotten what this meeting is all about, watch the following video once more :

Mike Dailly ‘gets Smart’ ? : The road to alternative business structures

Catering, for those of you who wish to stuff faces while listening to this nobbled debate, is in the Presidents Suite, while the actual meeting, which starts at 10am, is in the Thistle Suite. Do remember to post your expectations & experiences of said nobbled debate & said nobbled referendum in the comments section ! (where is Uma Thurman with a Hattori Hanzo when we need her so ? – Ed)

Today’s Times newspaper reports on the accusations flying between both camps, the ones who want alternative business structures (ABS) and the ones who dont (Govan, GBA (or should that be GBH – Ed) etc …) :

Accusations fly ahead of ‘Tesco Law’ referendum
Mike Wade

Bitter divisions in the Scottish legal profession over the so-called Tesco Law burst into the open last night as the Law Society of Scotland (LSS) was accused of acting undemocratically ahead of a Special General Meeting (SGM) to determine contentious reforms to the legal profession.

At issue are proposals to enable legal firms to raise capital from outside investors, while banks and supermarkets could offer a full range of solicitors’ services.

High Street solicitors fear the new rules will enable the big firms to cut prices and cherry-pick the best paying work, such as conveyancing, leaving them with diminishing returns.

This week they accused the society of using its financial resources effectively to rig the meeting against them. The Govan Law Centre, one of the most vocal opponents of the change, said the society’s officials had drawn on confidential databases and its extensive organisational facilities to ensure the vote went their way. Mike Dailly, the centre’s principal solicitor, said they had been able “to help themselves to resources, paid for by members, to run their own campaign in favour of Tesco Law”.

The society has also been accused of calling on solicitors employed by government departments and financial institutions to vote in favour of the reforms.

Yesterday, Mr Dailly repeated a call for the resignation of Mike Smart, the society president, who was “ultimately responsible for this undemocratic process”.

The development came ahead of tomorrow’s meeting, at Murrayfield Stadium, which the society hopes will ratify a decision to implement the reforms, known as Alternative Business Structures (ABS.) They were first adopted by the Society at its 2008 AGM, and now form an integral part of the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill.

As The Times revealed four weeks ago, the Scottish Law Agents Society — representing 1,500 solicitors — was confident it would overturn Law Society policy when it “requisitioned” an SGM last month. Now, it seems, it is not so confident.

Meanwhile the Law Society has met the objections head on by proposing a referendum, based on one member, one vote, to be overseen by the Electoral Reform Society, and to follow the SGM.

Explaining its position, a spokesman said: “There could be serious consequences from division. The society want one vote, one view. I can think of no more democratic process.” The spokesman added that it was quite proper for the LSS to promote policies that had been democratically endorsed two years ago. Last night, however, there were signs that the divisions were deepening. Critics insist that the Law Society rushed through its policy on ABS in 2008, and said it was now attempting to influence both the SGM and the referendum.

In particular, a letter from Janet Hood, the chairman of the society’s In House Lawyers Group, has caused apoplexy amongst its critics. It urged solicitors within government departments, financial institutions or charities, “to attend the SGM or to vote by proxy to support the society’s position”.

“This is twisting our motion,” said Ian Ferguson, a board member of the Scottish Law Agents Society. “Our motion has always been about the external ownership of legal firms. This is about getting the votes of other groups, because they know they won’t get the support of high street solicitors.”

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