This week Govan Law Centre met with Esther Robertson, Chair of the Independent Review of Legal Services in Scotland. We were very grateful they took the time to come and see us.
The review is considering what regulatory framework would best protect both consumer and public interest, and how we can ensure it retains the confidence of both the legal profession and the public.
The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission is the gateway for all legal services complaints. The Law Society investigates and deals with conduct/disciplinary matters. The Law Society represents both the interests of solicitors, and the public interest, which we believe is impossibly conflicted. You have to be a member of the Law Society to practice law as a solicitor, and the Society negotiates with the Scottish Government on things like legal aid fees
We had a fascinating and wide ranging discussion. How does the Law Society of Scotland both promote the interests of solicitors in Scotland and the interests of the public? What is the best model for a law centre? Is from the grass roots up the best way to develop a law centre?
We explained how Govan Law Centre has grown since 1995, from a small community law centre with a few staff to one of the largest law centre’s in the UK – with over 30 staff.
We explained the range of legal work we do landlord and tenant, private rented, employment, welfare, social security, consumer and debt. We explained we have welfare rights workers and money advice workers and vulnerable case workers in addition to solicitors and solicitor advocates.
We take our fair share of trainees and look to keep them on where we can.
We explained that our campaigning, research and policy work is fundamental to how we work and how we had to be continually looking for funding to address unmet legal needs.
Govan Law Centre has long thought that the Law Society of Scotland is in need of reform and an option we think sensible is to separate out some of its functions. Like representing solicitors, regulation of malpractice, and the public good. Perhaps legal services regulation and complaints handling needs to be separate regulatory body in Scotland, accountable to Parliament in relation to its statutory objectives. We also understand the importance of separating the regulation of legal services from the state.
Law centres are concerned with social justice and access to civil justice and rights. We are less concerned with commercial practices – except where it is detriment to our clients. Many of our clients do not have much choice over who can take their case. And our clients just want and need a professional service. There is frequently no money to be made in many areas of Legal need e.g. social security tribunals or homelessness cases.
Law centres must have a robust business model, be customer focused and make a positive impact on the lives of their clients. We need to be sustainable and reduce poverty and disadvantage. The consequences for law centres who do not get this right is that they are not law centres for much longer. Scotland has many examples of law centres who are no longer operating.
We will continue to discuss these issues with the Scottish Government’s review and continue to campaign for improved access to justice and the rights of people living in poverty and low incomes.