Legal reforms being introduced by the Scottish Government could put “the independence of Scotland’s legal profession at real risk”, lawyers have warned.
The Law Society of Scotland has said it will do “everything in our power” to ensure that the independence of the profession was not “jeopardised” by measures in the Regulation of Legal Services (Scotland) Bill.
It sets out to reform the regulation of legal services, but lawyers have concerns about the new powers it would give to Scottish ministers.
The legislation, if approved, would provide ministers with power to amend the regulatory objectives and professional principles – which would be done after consultation with Scotland’s most senior judge, the Lord President of the Court of Session, and others.
But Murray Etherington, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said by giving ministers the ability to “intervene directly in regulation undermines the fundamental principle of having a legal profession which is independent from the state”.
He warned such a change could diminish Scotland’s international standing.
Mr Etherington spoke out on the issue as the Law Society of Scotland signed up to an international declaration on protecting the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession.
The Commonwealth Law Conference 2023 Goa Declaration, which has been signed by bar association and law society leaders from 40 Commonwealth countries, makes clear that the independence and impartiality of the judiciary must be upheld and protected by governments.
Mr Etherington said: “The declaration emphasises just how important an independent judiciary is to the rule of law and the essential role of the legal profession in a democracy.”
He said this was “particularly significant for us given the recent introduction of a Bill in the Scottish Parliament which we believe puts the independence of Scotland’s legal profession at real risk”.
The Law Society president continued: “It’s striking that even in a mature democracy like ours, there is a need to reassert this.
“We will do everything in our power to make sure that the independence of the profession is not jeopardised by the Bill’s proposals.”
With the society having “pressed for several years” for the current regulatory system to be modernised, Mr Ethrington insisted there is “still an opportunity to use this Bill as a catalyst for real, positive and long-lasting change”.
He added: “Maintaining professional standards and protecting clients is some of the Law Society’s most important public interest work.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government recognise and fully support the importance of the impartiality and independence of the judiciary and the Regulation of Legal Services (Scotland) Bill will not change that.
“While Scotland has one of the best legal professions in the world, improvements to the regulatory structure are needed to further support access to justice.
“The bill is designed to provide for a modern regulatory framework which will promote competition, innovation and improve the transparency and accountability of legal services regulation, taking into account public and consumer interests while supporting an efficient, effective and independent legal sector.”
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