Sunday, July 15, 2007

Lawyers qualifications talked down in face of legal markets reforms

More From A Diary of Injustice in Scotland

Lawyers qualifications in doubt while public await Judicial Inquiry & remedy on injustice in Scotland

The legal profession never learn it seems ... one minute questioning it's own requirements for training & solicitors qualifications, then criticising it's own failures in the access to justice issue - no doubt prompted by the Which? "super complaint" filed with the OFT on restrictions off legal services in Scotland .. then rushing to threaten and attack the new Scottish Executive on any prospect of reforming the judiciary.

What do these kinds of things tell us ? Perhaps the legal profession is in slight disarray ? not knowing which way to turn, who to attack or pacify, who to offer a backhander to, or who to twist the knife in some more ... (I'm here, Douglas !)

The idea raised this week, that the Which? "super complaint" might be a good chance for the legal profession to review certain aspects of it's operation in the realm of the Clementi reforms affecting legal services in England & Wales, was floated by a lawyer in the Scotsman earlier this week ...obviously a story which had been passed by the Law Society hierarchy before printing, but going against the grain of their full all out attack on Which?'s "interference" in Scottish Law .. something we as maligned clients certainly welcome, but something the likes of Douglas Mill probably doesn't.

We then went on to hear that lawyers haven't really needed all those qualifications and studies they claim they have went through all these years, to be a lawyer ...and both the Scotsman and Herald newspapers took up the issue, with some interesting comments appearing in the comments section.

While some may think this is an admission by the Law Society that just about anyone could be a lawyer (which is probably the case anyway), it looks to those seasoned in the battles of injustice with lawyers over the years the Law Society is simply trying to carve out a new role for itself, aware of course that sooner or later, Scotland will get the full implementation of the Clementi reforms on the legal services market.

If the current solicitors monopoly on legal services and access to justice in Scotland is broken, where will that leave the Law Society ? For so long it has enjoyed political power and influence far beyond what it deserves .. which for the most it has used to stifle change in the public interest, and retain complaints for itself, ensuring Scotland's legal profession is accountable to no one other than it's own .. not a good position for the public, which has produced all those problems over the years with crooked lawyers, and the terrible public perception of the Scottish legal profession - which now seems well deserved considering the scandal after scandal we are treated to on crooked lawyers.

The thing is, all these problems in the Scottish legal profession, are caused by themselves - not us, the campaigner.

The fact is, the Law Society has had the same bosses since the mid 1990s.The Client Relations Director, Philip Yelland, has been in place since the early 1990s and the severe problems which have existed with client complaints and how Mr Yelland's Department have dealt with them, have only got worse and more numerous.

The current Chief Executive of the Law Society of Scotland - Douglas Mill, the infamous Law Society boss who last year, threatened the Scottish Parliament with legal action if the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007 was passed, has also been in position for the last 10 years, and with the same faces being shuffled around on the various Committees and useless lay members siding continually with the Law Society on fiddling complaints against crooked lawyers, you could be forgiven for concluding they are indeed, their own worst enemy.

If you go on to consider what has happened in this seemingly 10 year junta running the legal profession, standards have hit rock bottom in the profession, complaints have rocketed to 5000 a year, swindles & embezzlement of clients funds are a common occurrence, overcharging, knowingly mis-sold mortgages and dodgy investments, record claims of negligence against lawyers it's fairly easy to conclude the reign of Douglas Mill & Philip Yelland (who elevated themselves to Directors & Chief Executives from their previous titles as "secretary") has done little for either the best interests of lawyers, or the client.

But what of the members of the Law Society of Scotland then ? Why the silence on these issues from solicitors & local bar associations, who are so willing to go on strike action and boycott legal cases in the courts to gain more legal aid, but unwilling it seems to speak out on problems within their own leadership, which has caused surely more problems for lawyers than those brought about by campaigners such as myself ?

Of course, it could simply be that lawyers up and down the length of Scotland support the way Douglas Mill has alienated lawyers, made them untrustworthy objects of derision, deserving of the tag "crooked" which has certainly spread through the legal profession like wildfire in recent times ...

All that doesn't matter though, the Law Society think's its doing a bang up job, as can be seen in today's Evening News report on Solicitors must stay on the case - an amusing tale of fiction penned by a staffer from the Law Society itself !

Issues of injustice still roll on with how information is released in Scotland it seems, with the continuing waste of public money on the cover up over the leukemia statistics for Dumfries and Galloway .. most probably because there is a nuclear reactor close by of course, and the Common Services Agency of the NHS doesn't want to put the nuclear lads in a bad light ... so we can safely assume there is something to hide on that one. Robin Harper MSP from the Green Party has urged the Executive to step in and resolve this matter, and rightly so .. good to see someone speak out on this ..after all there are about 129 MSPs who should be pressing for the release of this information surely ?

Lastly, an issue cropped up on Scottish Judges ... a friend of mine, a journalist, has been trying to find out which ones have been taken to task for being p*rn addicts. Well, apparently there is a list of Judges who have some 'unusual habits' verging on the illegal ... certainly there are a few in England & Wales, as this story from the Timex Newspaper reveals : Secret list of porn judges ‘does exist’ - so, where are the Scottish Judges then ?? names please in the newspapers for us all to have a good read !

Following are a short selection of articles from the Scotsman:

Tribunals don't add up to a hill of beans


WHICH? - the consumer rights organisation - has lodged a "super-complaint" with the Office of Fair Trading to investigate how legal rules in Scotland are working against the interests of the consumer.

Lawyers may not accept that clients seeking legal advice are in the same position as consumers purchasing a defined product - such as a tin of beans - but we have to accept the present system does not serve the interests of the public, particularly those who are looking for a basic "tin of beans" type legal advice: affordable, substantial and easily accessible.

In the area of employment law, few people are able to engage a lawyer to challenge unfairness or discrimination in the workplace unless they are already members of a trade union with access to legal services or, increasingly, if the small print of their house insurance policy allows some measure of legal cover.

If an employee in difficulty at work searched the internet for legal advice the results produced would direct him or her to a range of advice agencies such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Legal Services Agency and, in the Glasgow area at least, to a number of law centres. However, the funding constraints on many of these organisations only allow advice to be given and not advocacy or representation at an employment tribunal.

If that same employee - advised they had a complaint with reasonable prospects of success - then wanted to take the next step to go to a tribunal and instruct a lawyer, they might contact the Law Society of Scotland and use the "find a solicitor" search facility on the website. The list of accredited specialists in employment law, for example, identifies some 39 solicitors. However, barely a handful of these have any meaningful experience of representing claimants. Unfortunately, most accredited specialists in employment law represent the interests of big business, and there is no meaningful distinction to properly direct claimants to firms who undertake any significant claimant work.

The individual is then left to hunt through Yellow Pages to find a lawyer with experience of representing employees that they can afford. Interestingly, some of the larger firms appear to operate an inverse means-test whereby anyone who earns less than £50,000 per year will not get past the first phone call as they clearly could not afford the fees. At fairly standard rates of £250 per hour and £1,500 per day at tribunal, you would need to have a slam-dunk employment complaint that was easily resolved with a large award of compensation to pay these fees. These are few and far between in the real world.

Worse still, you might have a very good legal case that has to be settled or abandoned before the tribunal date because the costs of instructing these particular lawyers might be greater than any award.

Industrial tribunals, now renamed Employment Tribunals, were originally designated as peoples' courts where the individual could forgo legal representation to make his own case to a fair-minded, three-person tribunal made up of a legally qualified chairman, with two lay members, one representing the workers' perspective and the other from the employers' background. While it is still theoretically possible to dispense with the services of a lawyer, all research shows individuals who are represented are awarded higher compensation.

In limited circumstances, it may be possible to access legal aid to fund a complaint to an employment tribunal. The most cost-effective means of support is to join a trade union, as an insurance policy, before any difficulties arise at work. But, for the majority of those who experience difficulties at work, advice and representation can prove impossible, financially and within the tribunals' timescales.

With the advent of the Clementi reforms in England and Wales, we in Scotland are in danger of being left behind with outdated structures that deny justice to large numbers of ordinary people.

Which?'s super-complaint, combined with the Gibbon review, might just afford us the opportunity to recreate the early ethos of employment tribunals to ensure both parties are on an equal footing, with affordable legal representation and funding for the employee as a guaranteed cornerstone of any improved system.

Claimants would then need access to law firms dedicated to fighting their corner, and Scotland would require a better geographical spread of law centres. Until then, for claimants, our expensive and unequal system doesn't add up to a hill of beans.

• Carol Fox is head of equity at Thompsons Solicitors

Solicitors may not need a law degree

A DEGREE in law may soon no longer be necessary to become a solicitor in Scotland, a review suggested yesterday.

It is one of the possible outcomes of a major overhaul of legal education in Scotland now planned in the wake of the largest consultation conducted by the Law Society of Scotland.

Liz Campbell, the director of education and training at the society, said: "There has been an excellent response, with many insightful comments from across the spectrum of those involved in legal education and other interested parties which will fully inform our work.

"I think we are the only jurisdiction in the world to have undertaken a review of legal education on this scale."

Following analysis of nearly 900 responses, the society is working to produce new standards that could mean students can go on to qualify as solicitors without necessarily studying for an LLB.

Ms Campbell said as long as students studied for degrees that included "core" legal instruction, there was no reason why they could not go on to achieve professional legal qualifications while in the workplace.

She said: "I think there is much to be said about allowing greater flexibility in how to qualify, with more emphasis on work-based learning."

Alistair Bonnington, a leading solicitor who has been outspoken on the issue of reforming legal training in Scotland, said: "I am happy to see this issue being grasped by the Law Society, because in no way are academic study and practical study in opposition to each other.

"I think what has to happen at the very least is the law degree has to be changed so it contains a substantial amount of practical training," Mr Bonnington said.

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