Council of the Law Society of Scotland Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:31 pm on 26 March 2003.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party 2:31, 26 March 2003

As there are no stage 3 amendments to the Council of the Law Society of Scotland Bill, the next item is a debate on motion S1M-4055, in the name of David McLetchie, that the Council of the Law Society of Scotland Bill be passed.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 2:32, 26 March 2003

I open the debate by making two preliminary points. First, I declare an interest as a Scottish solicitor and, consequently, a member of the Law Society of Scotland. I draw members' attention to the relevant entry under my name in the Parliament's register of members' interests. Secondly, I acknowledge the co-sponsorship of the bill by Pauline McNeill, Roseanna Cunningham and Donald Gorrie, which signifies the cross-party support that existed for the initial proposal that I made. I am grateful to those members for their support and to all other members who have helped to bring the bill to this point just before the shutters come down on the first session of the Scottish Parliament. The bill is a modest measure and, on the face of it, one of a highly technical nature. However, there lies within it a mechanism to improve significantly the handling of complaints by the Law Society of Scotland. It is by that criterion that I believe that the bill will be judged by the Parliament and the wider public.

The Justice 1 Committee took the lead on the bill with its usual gusto, rigorously examining the bill's principles and provisions and not missing the opportunity that was presented to advance the recommendations that it had made in its report on the inquiry into the regulation of the legal profession in Scotland. The committee took evidence from the Scottish Consumer Council, the Scottish legal services ombudsman, the Minister for Justice, and the Law Society of Scotland. I place on record my gratitude to the members of the Justice 1 Committee and its clerks for their diligence and efficiency in the processing of the bill at its previous stages.

I also place on record my thanks to the Scottish Executive for its support of the bill, as indicated by Jim Wallace, the Minister for Justice, at the committee's initial evidence-taking session, and at stage 2 by Hugh Henry, the Deputy Minister for Justice, who is present on behalf of the Executive.

The bill will enable the council of the Law Society of Scotland to delegate or arrange for the discharge of its statutory functions by another person or body. The bill will amend the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 to that affect. No such expressed power of delegation, even to the Law Society's own committees, sub-committees or staff members, is to be found within the 1980 act. The bill will remedy a perceived deficiency in the legislation.

The bill will enable the council to delegate its statutory functions, subject to limited exceptions, and will provide for the appointment of sub-committees in the scheme of the constitution of the council, and the appointment of lay members to committees or sub-committees of the council and, as appropriate, for such lay members to form a majority in the committee or sub-committee to which they have been appointed. Therefore, the bill is empowering rather than prescriptive.

In the stage 1 debate on 9 January, several members sought assurances that the scheme of delegation to be proposed and introduced by the Law Society would be available for parliamentary scrutiny before the bill completed its passage. By the time the bill reached stage 2 on 18 February, a copy of the general principles of the scheme of delegation had been made available to members of the Justice 1 Committee. I am pleased to advise members that specific proposals in relation to the Law Society's handling of complaints have been formulated and sent to the Justice 1 Committee. They are, of course, also available for consultation by any other member of the Parliament.

It would be helpful if I compared the recommendations that the Justice 1 Committee made in its report on the bill with the scheme of delegation for complaints handling that has been devised by the Law Society. First, the committee recommended that there should be at least 50 per cent lay membership of the Law Society's complaints committees. That is now a feature of the scheme. There are at present five client relations committees of 10 members each, 50 per cent of whom will be lay members once the scheme is put into effect. I can also advise members that the Law Society has completed the process of identifying and recruiting additional lay members to serve on those committees.

Secondly, the Justice 1 Committee recommended that an honorarium be paid to lay members, which the Law Society has agreed to. Thirdly, in accordance with the committee's recommendation, all decisions in relation to complaints, whether of misconduct or of inadequate professional service, will be taken by the Law Society's client relations committees rather than by the council. In that context, the decision whether to prosecute a solicitor before the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal, which is itself an independent statutory body, will likewise be taken by a client relations committee rather than by the council.

Fourthly, the committee recommended that there be an oversight committee to ensure consistency in decision making. To that end, the Law Society's client care committee will have an enhanced supervisory role in respect of the client relations committees, to give guidance to them on procedures, ensure consistency of decision making, deal with policy questions that may occasionally arise, oversee the work of staff employed in client relations and ensure adequate training arrangements for committee members on how to discharge their duties, including the preparation of reports by individual committee members for consideration by the committee as a whole.

If the bill is approved by the Parliament, it will come into force one month after receiving royal assent. Meetings of the council of the Law Society are scheduled for both June and July. The consequence is that the new complaints handling system will be in place by the summer, once the final legislative and constitutional hurdles have been cleared.

I also advise members that the committee approved three amendments at stage 2. The first amendment clarified the respective roles of the society's committees and of individuals, whether they be case reporters or case managers, in processing and handling complaints from the public.

The other two amendments were technical and enabled the bill to dovetail with the Public Appointments and Public Bodies etc (Scotland) Act 2003, which transfers the responsibilities of the Scottish Conveyancing and Executry Services Board to the Law Society of Scotland. The amendments were designed to align the complaints system for solicitors with that for conveyancing and executry practitioners.

I commend this short, non-controversial bill to the Parliament.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Council of the Law Society of Scotland Bill be passed.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour 2:41, 26 March 2003

I am pleased to confirm the Executive's continuing support for the bill, which will enable the council of the Law Society to discharge its business more efficiently by means of appropriate delegation. It will also increase the speed at which the society can handle its business, which will allow faster processing of complaints.

It is to the Law Society's credit that it has taken account of several key recommendations from the Justice 1 Committee's report on the regulation of the legal profession in the scheme of delegation for client relations matters, which the society has helpfully provided. The scheme provides for 50 per cent lay representation on client relations committees, which will help to boost public confidence in the transparency and fairness of committee processes. As David McLetchie said, the scheme proposes to pay lay members an honorarium, which recognises the value of the time and effort that those members commit to the task.

I also commend the society's undertaking in the scheme that responsibility for resolving all complaints will be delegated to its client relations committees. I am pleased that the scheme of delegation provides for an oversight committee to help ensure consistency in the work of the society's client relations committees. It will be important for committees to take account of precedents in exercising their judgment.

The scheme also mentions that adequate safeguards will be in place to ensure that complaints are properly considered in the first instance. I commend the society for that undertaking. The Executive will be interested to hear in due course what those safeguards will be.

The bill is a welcome measure and marks the beginning of a period of change for the Law Society in the way in which it handles complaints. I take the opportunity to congratulate the Law Society on the work that it has done on the bill and the scheme of delegation. I am pleased that the bill has made speedy progress and I confirm that the Executive fully supports it.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party 2:43, 26 March 2003

I congratulate David McLetchie on the way in which he has handled the bill and taken it through its stages. I congratulate him particularly on the way in which he has co-operated with the Justice 1 Committee in considering the bill's provisions. The bill has the SNP's support; as David McLetchie said, one of the bill's co-sponsors is Roseanna Cunningham, who unfortunately cannot participate in the debate because of her mother's ill health.

Having witnessed the conduct of the Law Society's council meetings at first hand, I can say that delegation to its committees will assist the council in undertaking its programmes of work and will make the system more transparent and accountable. I welcome the fact that the Law Society has taken on board many of the Justice 1 Committee's recommendations, which shows a commitment from the society to work in partnership with the Parliament and to strengthen the bill further.

In the stage 1 debate, I said that I hoped that the bill would be the first step in making the way in which the Law Society handles complaints against its members more transparent and public. The bill is in line with the recommendations in the Justice 1 Committee's report on the regulation of the legal profession. It is a first step, but the Law Society's response to the committee's report has been somewhat unhelpful. It is sad that the Law Society chose not to accept several important recommendations from the committee.

Many members of the public clearly continue to hold the view that the Law Society must be more transparent in and accountable for its actions. The Justice 1 Committee's report into the regulation of the legal profession reflected that in its recommendations. I hope that the Law Society will reflect again on those recommendations and will consider what further changes it can make to make its system even better. I am sure that that is an issue to which a future justice committee will wish to turn following the election.

The bill has the SNP's support and is a step in the right direction.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 2:45, 26 March 2003

As a co-sponsor of the bill, I naturally support it. I am very happy to do that. The bill is a sensible move in the right direction, and the Liberal Democrats, like the other parties, support it.

The bill is only a step on the road. I agree with everything that Michael Matheson said. We still have a lot of unfinished business. It is regrettable that some people have a really bad experience with their lawyer. That can be very destructive to their family life and fortunes. They get very bitter about it, and some of them think that we are engaged in a huge plot against them, which we are not. I assure them that the Justice 1 Committee is a vigorous anti-establishment group, if I can use that expression to embrace people such as Lord James Douglas-Hamilton. We probe seriously, and I am sure that our successors will continue to pursue the matter.

The bill is a step in the right direction. I endorse everything that has been said so far.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat 2:46, 26 March 2003

I thank Mr McLetchie for taking up the point that I made in the stage 1 debate in an intervention about the training of lay members in complaints handling. I am grateful to Michael Clancy for his response on the matter.

I add only one small point. There is value in the Law Society's considering how other agencies handle complaints and some of the positive ways in which those agencies deal with consumers, if they happen to be consumer complaints organisations, or commercial companies.

I think that Michael Clancy took my remarks to mean that the Law Society should buy in outside expertise. It is more a question of sharing good practice in complaints handling. A lot of good practice exists, particularly in consumer representation organisations.

However, it was reassuring to hear that there will be training for lay members. That will make a considerable difference to the way in which complaints are handled.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 2:47, 26 March 2003

I thank the members who have contributed to our short debate today and will comment on some of the points that were made.

I thank Hugh Henry, the minister, for confirming Executive support for the bill and thank him for the welcome that he has given to the good working relationship that exists between the Law Society, the Justice 1 Committee and the Executive on making progress on issues that relate to the regulation of the profession and to complaints handling.

I welcome the support that other members have expressed. I was unaware until Mr Gorrie informed us today that my good friend James Douglas-Hamilton was a member of such a revolutionary cell as the Justice 1 Committee. However, I learn something about James Douglas-Hamilton every day in the Parliament. No doubt there will be other discoveries in future.

It is fair to say that the Law Society has accepted a number of the recommendations in the Justice 1 Committee's report on its inquiry into the regulation of the legal profession. However, I am sure that the Scottish Executive would wish to consider many of that report's recommendations, because they have implications, not only for the Law Society, but for the overall regulatory framework for the profession. The recommendations also have consequential effects on other professions and, in some instances, public expenditure implications.

A great deal more must be done on other aspects of the regulation of the legal profession. A year or so down the road, it might be appropriate for the Justice 1 Committee's successor committee to review the delegation scheme and the changes to complaints handling that are now being put in place and that will come into force in the summer. In the light of that review, consideration might be given as to whether the Justice 1 Committee's further recommendations are appropriate for enactment.

The bill is a step forward in the modernisation of the Law Society of Scotland. The Law Society is a statutory body, which is responsible to the Parliament. It is charged by the Parliament with the dual role of promoting the interests of the solicitors' profession and—this is an important "and"—the interests of the public in relation to that profession. It is the servant of two masters and, although no one doubts the difficulties of fulfilling such a dual role, it is one that the society has sought to discharge conscientiously and even-handedly over the years.

The Council of the Law Society of Scotland Bill and what flows from it will enable the society to function in a more efficient manner, and will improve its standards of service, both to its own members and to the public. In seeking to take this measure of reform, I believe that the society has demonstrated its willingness to engage with the Parliament and to take forward the recommendations made by the Justice 1 Committee, both in its report on the bill and in its report on its wider inquiry into the regulation of the legal profession. It will be up to the Law Society and the relevant justice committee in the next Parliament to continue that good working relationship and to monitor the progress made on complaints handling, which should be one of the benefits of the bill and of the scheme of delegation. That is an aspect of the society's functions that I am sure the Scottish Executive—however it may be comprised in future—will keep under review.

I commend the bill to the Parliament.