Law Society’s own legal aid negotiating team in legal aid plunder job. WHEN things are so bad the Law Society of Scotland decides to silently back a group of lawyers from its own criminal legal aid negotiating team who then go off to form a private company (Esto Law Ltd) with the alleged aim of siphoning off some (or as much as possible) of the ONE HUNDRED & FIFTY FIVE MILLION POUNDS of taxpayers money to be spent this year by the Scottish Government on the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) who make legal aid payments to law firms & solicitors already moaning about cuts to legal aid fees, you just know arguments such as “access to justice”, or what is “in the public interest” take a significant back seat to the pound signs flashing up like an out of control cash register in a lawyer’s eyes.
In fact, not content with backing the private venture to ‘offer new services’ to lawyers in relation to the rather messy Police Station duty scheme, run by SLAB which enables a person who is arrested on suspicion of a criminal offence to consult with a solicitor, either in person or on the telephone whilst in police custody, (something Esto Law wants to tap into for the legal aid money by being an unnecessary go-between) the Law Society went one step further and wrote a report clearing their now former criminal legal aid negotiating team of any impropriety whatsoever, reported earlier, HERE
Today, as part of a Freedom of Information disclosure supplied to Scottish Law Reporter by one of our journalists, the Scottish Legal Aid Board released Information contained in documents & discussions between SLAB, the Glasgow Bar Association and any Scottish law firms which communicated with SLAB on the subject of Esto Law Ltd and any services/proposed services offered by Esto Law ltd. Surprise !, the meetings which included fleeting visits from SLAB’s very own Chief Executive, Lindsay Montgomery, and other well known figures from the Scottish Legal Aid Board (chuff chuff – Ed) had no notes taken. (Don’t you just love these no-notes-taken-meetings involving tens of millions of pounds of public money. Thoroughly untrustworthy indeed – Ed)
In relation to the FOI request, made in January by one of our journalists, a full copy of which can be read below or downloaded online HERE, the following information was disclosed :
1.How many meetings took place between representatives of SLAB and Directors of Esto Law Ltd? : Two meetings took place between representatives of the Scottish Legal Aid Board and directors of Esto Law Ltd.
2.On what basis were these meetings convened? : The meetings were convened at the request of representatives from Esto Law Ltd to have initial, informal discussions with a view to ensuring that their proposals met the Board’s requirements for the operation of the Police Station Duty scheme, and our requirements for the registration of firms and connected solicitors. No formal applications for registration had been made at that stage.
We would expect any new private firm proposing to deliver a new service such as that proposed by Esto to have discussions with us to ensure that their proposals fully met all our requirements. At no stage did we advise that any special arrangements could or would be made for Esto Ltd. No minutes were taken of these meetings.
Who was present from SLAB and Esto Law Ltd in the meetings that took place? The representatives at the two meetings were as follows:
8 November 2011 2pm SLAB Offices, Drumsheugh Gardens, Edinburgh. Scottish Legal Aid Board: Douglas Haggarty, Head of Legal Services (Criminal and Technical), Linda Laughland, Head of Human Resources, Kingsley Thomas, Manager, Criminal Applications, Alison Craig, Team Leader, Criminal Applications
Esto representatives : Vincent McGovern, Ian Bryce, Ken Dalling, John Scott, John Keenan, Neil Robertson, Stuart Munro
23 November 2011 4pm SLAB Offices, 44 Drumsheugh Gardens Edinburgh, Scottish Legal Aid Board: Lindsay Montgomery, Chief Executive (At start of meeting only and not present for the substantive discussions.), Colin Lancaster;Director of Policy and Development,Douglas Haggarty; Head of Legal Services (Criminal and Technical), Kingsley Thomas; Manager, Criminal Applications.
Esto representatives : Vincent McGovern, Ian Bryce
4.When were the meetings and are there minutes from said meetings?
The dates of the meetings are shown above. No minutes were taken of these meetings, given their informal nature.
5.What assurances were given to the Directors of Esto Law Ltd in relation to it provision of advice and assistance for an agency service for the police station duty scheme, given that in terms of the current duty scheme, solicitors are not allowed to delegate duty, the duty instead passing to the alternative duty agent.
There seems to be a misunderstanding here about the operation of the police station duty scheme. The details of the scheme were published on 25 May 2011. At no point in the scheme is it specified that duty solicitors are not allowed to delegate police attendances, with the duty instead passing to the alternative duty agent. Indeed, we have tried to ensure that the police station duty scheme can be operated as flexibility and reasonably as possible given the circumstances when police station attendances may be required. It was always envisaged that flexible cover arrangements would be used by duty solicitors to ensure that police station attendances could be arranged as quickly as possible as long as any attendances were made by solicitors who had been accepted on to a police station duty plan.
6.In any of the meetings with the Directors of Esto Law Ltd was it indicated by the Board that the above restriction was to be withdrawn and that duty solicitors would be entitled to nominate an agency solicitor to attend or give advice on their behalf?
Are any such changes planned or in contemplation in relation to the police duty scheme? If there are when were these plans first mooted and buy whom?
As mentioned above, no such restriction exists within the current interim police station duty scheme.
7.If there are no planned changes to the police station duty scheme, on what basis did the Board indicate to the Directors of Esto Law Ltd that the services that they proposed to supply conformed to the current requirements?
As there is no restriction preventing a duty solicitor delegating their attendance, then the services which were proposed by Esto Law Ltd appeared to comply with the current scheme.
8. Does the Board accept that it is inappropriate for the Board to engage in meetings and discussion with private venture companies whilst concurrently engaging in negotiations with the same people acting in a representative capacity for the Profession?
At the time of our meetings with Esto Law Ltd, there were no concurrent negotiations with the Law Society, or any other engagement with their negotiating team. It would have been wholly inappropriate for the Board to decline to discuss with any firm of solicitors whether any new proposed services would meet the current legal aid requirements.
9.What steps did the Board take to ensure commercial neutrality in their dealings with the Directors of Esto Law Ltd?
The purpose of the meetings with Esto Law Ltd was to ensure that their proposals met the Board’s requirements for the operation of the Police Station Duty scheme, and our requirements for the registration of firms and connected solicitors. No special arrangements were requested or discussed with Esto. I am satisfied that the Board representatives acted properly in their dealings with Esto, and would have acted in the same way with any other private firm who requested a meeting to discuss new services.
10. Did the Board agree that Esto Law Ltd could receive calls direct from police stations by passing the call centre? If so, what was the basis and justification for agreement?
The Board did not agree that Esto Law Ltd could receive calls direct from police stations by-passing the Board Solicitor Contact Centre. The Esto representatives did not request this. However, the Board made it clear that an individual solicitor who registered with Esto would need to confirm to us that they had done this and that they wished us to contact Esto on their behalf. It was made clear that police stations would still contact the Board Solicitor Contact Line where suspects require legal advice.
11.The Law Society of Scotland is now instigating a full investigation into the creation of Esto Law Ltd by members of its Legal Aid Negotiating Team. I would be obliged if you would confirm with me that you will similarly launch a full investigation in relation to the dealings between the Scottish Legal Aid Board and the Directors of Esto Law Ltd.
The important issue here is that the purpose of the meetings with ESTO Law Ltd was to ensure that the Board’s requirements for the Police Station Duty Scheme and the requirements for the registration of firms and connected solicitors were not breached. It was made clear to the Esto directors that no special arrangements would be made for Esto and that we would deal with any other firm wishing to set up new arrangements in the same way. The directors of Esto were at pains to confirm that they would not be seeking any special arrangements and that they wished to ensure compliance with the Board’s requirements.
We also understand that the Law Society of Scotland is conducting an investigation into the creation of Esto Law Ltd. Of course, if we are asked to contribute to that investigation, we will be happy to do so. I see no basis for an investigation to be carried out by the Board. As shown above, we held two meetings with representatives from Esto Law Ltd to discuss the Board’s requirements for the operation of the Police Station Duty scheme, and our requirements for the registration of firms and connected solicitors, and we were also sent background information on their proposed service. In the course of these meetings, and the consideration of their proposals, we discussed matters that we would expect any private concern to discuss with us before setting up a new service providing publicly funded legal assistance.