The ‘blame the lawyers’ approach to consultation is so convenient for politicians – Andrew Stevenson

Andrew Stevenson is Secretary of the Scottish Law Agents Society

Members of the Scottish Law Agents’ Society deal with a wide range of people sometimes referred to as ‘consumers’, an impersonal term which does not distinguish between, for example, a large retail business that rents out commercial property and a homeless man accused of shoplifting one of the company’s stores. These customers have little or nothing in common. Putting them all together is useless.

We know from experience why customers can become unhappy; It will usually be a small number of general dislikes, delays, expenses, feelings of helplessness and unfavorable results.

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The easy reaction is, to quote Shakespeare wrongly: “Blame all the lawyers”.

We can see how this can happen. Lawyers are often perceived as the accessible face of the law and guilty of its shortcomings by associating themselves with it. The landlord who is owed thousands in rent arrears, who finds himself unable to evict an antisocial tenant who then accumulates a fortune in debt and carries out a moonlight robbery will direct his anger at his own lawyer through the desk of his office – not the MSP, isolated miles away, who voted to make the laws that created the mess he finds himself in.

Rather, this consultation evokes politicians eager to avoid problems of their own making by adopting the bard’s advice, or at least his spirit. It is appropriate to assume that these causes of dissatisfaction are not adequately addressed by the client’s attorney, to conclude that attorneys need to do more, and to compel them to do so by making it easier for clients to complain about them.

In truth, there is no solid evidence to suggest that the public is let down by the current regime that regulates lawyers. The Roberton report, which formed the basis of this consultation and which recommended changes, is another example of the government seeming to equate the words “independent” and “infallible” in the context of reviews and reports.

A more intelligent and imaginative exploration of this area reveals other reasons why there might be delays, costs and powerlessness.

There are delays in the legal system, in registering our deeds and in our dealings with bodies such as the Office of the Public Guardian or HMRC. This was the case even before Covid induced disruptions and staff shortages. One way to reduce this backlog is to increase funding for more staff and resources. This way clients wouldn’t have to wait six months for proof, seven months to register a Power of Attorney or a year to get a response from Registers of Scotland.

Costs arise in several ways. Costs are increasingly imposed on anyone who ends up in court, or who wants to buy a house or whose loved one dies. They are, indeed, taxes, and the government controls them. He can therefore reduce them, if he wishes. Obviously, this is not the case; another consultation concerns a proposal to increase legal costs in each of the next three years.

Fees paid to lawyers breed resentment. For those of meager means, this source of discontent could be reduced if the government provided adequate funding for legal aid and for legal centers and counseling agencies such as CABx. Indeed, by increasing access to justice, the feeling of powerlessness would also be reduced.

Empowering people doesn’t mean it’s easier to complain about their lawyers. Real empowerment is achieved when citizens have the opportunity to access good legal advice and, where necessary, to access the courts in an efficient and cost-effective manner in order to assert their rights and obtain appeals. It means spending money where it counts, for legal aid and for the justice system. Lawyer regulation is a complete distraction.

Andrew Stevenson is Secretary of the Scottish Law Agents’ Society

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