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President of the Glasgow Bar Association John McGovern joins a few dots, and doesn't like the picture he sees.
"As I paid my eagerly anticipated weekly visit to HM Prison Barlinnie the other day, and waited for those accused I was due to consult with being brought from their cells to the agents’ interview area, I couldn’t stop fretting about the ridiculous position in which this Law Society of ours has placed our great profession.
"The first accused I was due to consult with was remanded in custody pending sentence on charges of breach of the peace and police assault, both committed whilst on bail. Never having been fined more than £1000 before, and never having previously served two years imprisonment, it occurred to me that this accused, my client, could in a year or so, be my business rival: a legal service provider. Incredible, but the Legal Services Bill, which the LSS has negotiated for our profession, contains nothing which will prevent such a situation arising. Nothing.
"So, I thought, let me see. The next file for the next accused: domestic assault. Serving six months imprisonment, following upon last year’s convictions on indictment for domestic assault which resulted in an eighteen month sentence, following upon convictions in 2008 which resulted in the Sheriff imposing a probation order. This violent thug, too, could be my business rival this time next year: never done two years and never been fined more than £1000. Got the picture? Or will I go on? Well, I will a bit. Because when crime gets serious, you see, the heavies don’t do any time. Nor do they get fined. In fact, who are the heavies? I don’t think the Law Society knows. But that doesn’t matter. As long as the Law Society can regulate the new ABS businesses, and thereby stay in business itself, it’s fine.
"In December last year, I wrote an article which, inter alia, highlighted that s.92 of the Legal Services Bill removed this profession’s independence and ceded it to the Government. The Government, under s92, had the power to set the criteria for the appointment of non-solicitor members to our representative Law Society Council. Significantly, s.92 also allowed the Government to set the proportion (without any limit) of non-solicitor members to Council. For months, on websites, in press releases and debates, the Law Society argued there was no problem with s.92. Indeed, at a meeting I attended with LSS office bearers, the LSS attempted to diffuse my concerns about s.92 by stating that they had a letter from the Cabinet Secretary stating that the proportion of non-solicitor members on the Council of the Law Society would always be set after consultation with the LSS.
"A letter? From the Cabinet Secretary? Fine. No statutory safeguards? But a letter? Fine.
"Well, not really. Because, the Cabinet Secretary might not be there forever. And what happens if another Government comes into power……
"I think the LSS knew what I meant. Because in March, Fergus Ewing announced that s.92, or at least its Government control provisions, had gone. No more. Finito. The Law Society must have been embarrassed, you might think, having tried to reassure the profession that it was in control and nothing was wrong with s.92. Well, not exactly. The LSS was “delighted” at s.92 being removed. Go figure! Cos’ I can’t.
"But I’ll try. You see, if the Government says “run”, the Law Society sprints; if the Government says “jump”, the Law Society leaps; if the Government says “the status quo is not an option, how is the Law Society going to survive post Tesco law?”, the Law Society says “if you look after us, we’ll deliver the profession’s independence to you”.
"So there we are. Government control of our Council (formally removed, but ah hae ma doots) and external ownership of law firms. Smashin. Well done Law Society. As long as you’re ok.
"And what has this hard working, decent, honest profession done to deserve losing its independence? Eh, nothing. Nothing at all. Well apart from allowing those with Government civil service agendas to penetrate and dominate our Council. And it’s still going on. Just ask SLAS. Or better still, see for yourself: We’re paying for that. But for how much longer?
"I read among the Law Society’s “papers” dispatched to every member (10,500) that the “Glasgow Bar Association had requested a referendum on the nature and extent of the society’s role…”
"Mmm…not quite. The referendum was requisitioned by over thirty law firms including Law Firm of the year Thompsons, one of Scotland’s commercial giants MacRoberts, one of this profession’s most respected institutions, Govan Law Centre and members of (largely) Edinburgh’s WS Society. Oh, and the GBA too. But it suits the LSS not to tell that to its 10,500 members. It’ll portray the “dual functions” referendum as a GBA thing. It’s not. Indeed, no one would have requisitioned the “dual functions” referendum at all had the LSS agreed to include the dual functions question in the ABS referendum that the Council itself decided to requisition. But it wouldn’t.
"When the President made it clear, at the ONLY open debate on ABS that took place in Glasgow at the RFPG (the LSS arranged.. er.. NO open debates anywhere on ABS- just “roadshows” with their own speakers – all ABS supporters), that a third question on the “dual functions” would not be included on the ballot paper for the ABS referendum, then all the requisition signatures were obtained the following morning and delivered to Drumsheugh Gardens. An hour or two. Thirty firms. Glasgow through to Edinburgh.
"Speaking of which, there was the motion to adjourn at the SGM a couple of weeks ago. The decent, honest, hard working solicitors who had been told by the Law Society two months previously, when they expressed their concerns about external ownership, to “bring it on” did just that.(In case you missed that, they were told by the Law Society to “bring it on”). Staring defeat in the face, The Law Society’s Standing Order book was literally produced from the back of the hall and a hand count later, proxies denied, and we’re all back on the train again. No vote.
"Privately, past Presidents are aghast at what is going on. Privately, politicians are disbelieving. Publicly, other professions are looking and not laughing.
"There is another way you know. Cheaper and more effective. Be it SLAS, the GBA, the WS Society, the RFPG….. All independent. All cheaper. All stronger. All together.
"We deserve nothing less than mature, independent representation for all our sakes. Watching this Town Hall political soap opera that is the Law Society self destruct in front of us is not much fun. If you value an independent profession, you must vote “NO” in the dual functions referendum running 26th April through to 10th May."