Saturday, August 26, 2006

Legal profession 'split' revealed as 'bargaining chip' in legal aid dispute

Lawyers about to form their own organisation to rival the Law Society of Scotland ... how does that sound in the face of the current difficulties the Scottish legal profession finds itself in ?

Well, quite plausable .. if it were not for the plot and counter plot we have seen in the last few days in sections of the media where the likes of Douglas Mill, Chief Executive of the Law Society has been revealed to have meddled in financial claims for damages against lawyers and legal firms, while denying the very same involvement to the Justice 2 Committee inquiry into the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill.

Douglas Mill should certainly be called back to the J2 Committee to account for his 'erroneous testimony' .. in the face of memos flying all around the media showing him to have had a 'big hand' in meddling against client complaints and claims against crooked firms of lawyers.

Peter Cherbi, reports on the alleged 'split' which has been publicised this week in the Scotsman newspaper, (after the same story apparently being refused publicity in another newspaper) comes on the back of the damaging revelations against Douglas Mill .. and reveals the whole thing to be little more than a ruse to get more at the bargaining table on the legal aid fees dispute with the Scottish Executive.

Read on for the article, from "A Diary of Injustice in Scotland" by Peter Cherbi at

Law Society of Scotland faces a split within it's ranks over legal aid deal - or does it ?

One has to wonder why there is the sudden rush by some newspapers, to publish details of an apparent split within the ranks of the legal profession, on who represents members interests.

In a story, which one newspaper apparently turned down early last week, this week has seen the Scotsman publish allegations of a split within the ranks of the Scottish legal profession - focussed, for now, it seems, on those solicitors who practice legal aid, being unhappy at the latest deal struck between the Law Society of Scotland and the Scottish Executive over Legal Aid fees - which had seen strike action, with criminal cases such as those relating to dangerous sex offenders, down to the likes of family law cases, frozen out from representation until such time the Scottish Executive would 'cave in', awarding the lawyers as much legal aid as they required.

To me, this latest twist, in the world of the Scottish legal profession, immersed in plot, and counter plot, is nothing more than a smoke screen for the more pressing difficulties which face Scottish solicitors at the present time - that of the impending loss of self-regulation of complaints against lawyers - which has seen decades of cover up afer cover up, where crooked lawyers have literally, gotten away with murder, supported to the hilt, by their masters at the Law Society of Scotland.

In talks with my sources on this story today, it would seem that the whole affair, could be little more than an arranged extra bargaining chip against the Scottish Executive, with the planned reforms of the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill on the way, as well as the deal over Legal Aid - which is only bound to get better for the taxpayer, and worse for the legal profession as time goes on .

Scottish Executive Ministers should be happy to read that then.

We have seem such a fuss before, when the impetuous ranks of the legal profession fail to get their way.

Creating stories in the media - as news items, is one of the specialities of the legal profession - we have had plenty of examples of this !, and there are even several lawyers on certain newspapers these days, writing articles under the guise of 'journalists".
Earlier this week, a good example of this hit the press, where the 'living eulogy' to Douglas Mill, Chief Executive of the Law Society of Scotland given by this very same 'freelance reporter' at the Scotsman ... flew in the face of a factual case reported by the Herald newspaper, which was then partially 'retracted', under duress from communications from the Law Society over the terms and insinuations of the "Would granny swear by the law society ?" article, written by Paul Rogerson - reporting on how Douglas Mill meddled in clients financial claims against crooked lawyers.

I covered this story here : & here:

So, this latest report of splits is a bargaining tactic by the legal profession ? Looks like it, from the evidence at hand ... too many arranged twists, plots, sounding out of newspapers on whether they would print it ... it all comes back to me, you know ... people talk ... can't keep anything secret these days ...

Let's face it, over the past few months since the Law Society officially stated it 'supported' the proposals of independent regulation contained in the forthcoming LPLA Bill, they have dragged out every single 'so-called' expert, professor, even the occasional Lordship QC, to claim in lengthy, baseless reports, that what is proposed in law, is actually against the law ... so the little story of a major split within the ranks of Scotlands disrespected lawyers, over legal aid ... would be a good bargaining chip to use next time the Law Society plays poker with the Scottish Executive over increased public funds for their members to feather their existence with.

Jennifer Veitch forgot to mention the last Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman, Linda Costello Baker, told the Justice 2 Committee that there was such a mess in the field of handling client complaints, that only an independent body well could do the job. It would have been nice to mention that .. rather than using selective reporting which seems to give more favour to the Law Society of Scotland than it really deserves.

To be fair, the split story, did make it into the Scotsman on Wednesday, see here : .. but again, this was apparently after another newspaper last week refused to run it ... so ... judge for yourselves on what is happening .. but in any case - the alleged split isn't over honesty, or duty to the client - it's over MONEY.

5000+ complaints per year - against less than 10,000 members - and that's been the case for several years now. How does that stack up against transparency, honesty, high standards ? ... not very well I think, and with the real number of complaints per year running at about 7000 or so, with many complaints not even being able to go through the Law Society's restrictive procedures for determination and investigation ... it is certainly high time the Law Society was consigned to the dustbin of history - but also made to pay for the sins of the past.

Let us not forget, people, the sins of the past must be accounted for. All those thousands of complaints over the years that the likes of Douglas Mill, Philip Yelland, and their colleagues at the Law Society of Scotland offices in Drumsheugh Gardens have fiddled, must be resolved, and the clients properly compensated for years of hell, shattered lives, ill health, families torn apart, loss of assets - all, just because the supposed 'honour' of lawyers had a greater place in society than the rights of the public.

Read on for the article, from the Scotsman, on the latest plot from the legal profession ..
link at :
Break-away move is the latest blow for lawyers' body

EVEN those at the helm of the Law Society of Scotland will now openly admit they are experiencing troubled times. Of course, suggesting anything otherwise would be laughed out of court, and the revelation that lawyers are now actively manoeuvring to establish a new representative body, to argue better their case for recognition and remuneration, is only the latest instalment in the society's depressing litany of woes.

In the past 12 months, the society has tried, and failed, to retain its absolute power to regulate solicitors. Once the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill is enacted, it will lose control over service complaints.

The society finally admitted defeat in December, agreeing to the principle of an independent Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, but only after initially rejecting all four of the Scottish Executive's consultation options for reform - and coming up with one of its own instead.

But another crisis was simmering. In May, criminal defence solicitors requisitioned a special general meeting, calling on the society's council to withdraw co-operation in criminal matters from the Executive and Scottish Legal Aid Board, until the question of legal aid fees could be resolved.

More than 300 solicitors, incensed that they had not received an increase in solemn legal aid fees for 14 years, voted for the move, and the society's council had little choice but to agree.

Last week, the society finally brokered an improved legal aid deal with the Executive, but if they had hoped this would end the bitter dispute, and quell the revolt, clearly they were wrong. Criminal lawyers - many of whom were already aggrieved that the society had to be bounced into putting more pressure on the Executive - argue that the negotiators caved in too quickly and failed to consult them widely enough before accepting the offer.

Now they are not only openly questioning what role the society will have, once stripped of much of its regulatory power, but also where else solicitors can turn for representation.

For now, the revolt is largely confined to the ranks of the legal aid lawyers, who only make up around 15 per cent of solicitors, but there are other solicitors who are less than happy. It was the profession's lack of support for the status quo that persuaded the society to back down on the complaints-handling issue last year.

But most of these problems can be boiled down to one source: the tension in the society's dual role as regulator and representative - as promoter and policeman of the profession.

Ironically, while the public widely perceives the Law Society as little more than a glorified trade union looking after the interests of lawyers, its duty to protect the public interest is in fact enshrined in section 1 of the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980.

Of course, many consumers will argue it has failed dismally to protect the public interest. A sift through some of the public's responses to consultations on the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill, or a glance at the "rogues gallery" on the Scotland Against Crooked Lawyers campaign website, shows just how many people feel deeply aggrieved.

In recent years, the society has made some significant and beneficial changes to the complaints-handling process. There is now increased lay representation on its client relations committees, and all firms must now designate a client-relations partner.

In her last report, Linda Costelloe Baker, the former Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman, acknowledged there had been real improvement.

"I was satisfied that the Law Society had acted fairly, efficiently and reasonably in 60 per cent of the cases I examined, the highest rating ever recorded," she wrote. But despite their frustration that their efforts have gone largely unrecognised, senior figures at the society have conceded that it has all been too little, too late. The profession has been too slow to respond to the demands of a consumer society.

For some time, there has been a clear disconnect between what the society feels its role is and what the political climate dictates it should be.

To be fair, the fact that many solicitors are unhappy will not have come as a surprise to staff working at 26 Drumsheugh Gardens. In an interview for this newspaper's law pages in July, the chief executive, Douglas Mill, issued a pre-emptive strike.

He called for a "robust debate" on the future role of the society, including whether section 1 should be ditched.

Writing in the Law Gazette, solicitor Brian Allingham argued section 1 was "redundant and anachronistic". Its removal would allow the society "to evolve into an ardent representative of its members, without having its hands cuffed securely behind its back".

Only a change in the law could free the society from the shackles of its public interest duty and allow it to become a trade union. That change might come eventually, but not soon enough for solicitors. The society will have to review its priorities quickly. While it has a clear duty to address concerns about the battery of regulatory reforms that are being proposed, it cannot afford to lose sight of the issues affecting lawyers at grass-roots level.

For the society to weather this storm, it must now prove its worth to solicitors; it must look for new ways to engage with the profession and ensure it consults solicitors, especially those who are remote from Edinburgh.

Unless the profession can have faith in the society's ability to represent its interests, then its power and influence can only wane.

Past president Caroline Flanagan's recent comment that the society is seen as "pleasing no-one" might well become its epitaph.

• Jennifer Veitch is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Scotsman's Law & Legal Affairs pages, which are published every Tuesday.

No comments: