Plans to introduce new rules for Scotland’s legal sector should put the public and consumer interests at its heart, the Scottish Government has said.
Ministers are consulting on changes to the regulation of legal services with the aim of promoting competition and reforming the “complex complaints system”, according to community safety minister Ash Denham.
It follows a review from NHS Scotland 24 chairwoman Esther Robertson that made 40 recommendations for reforming the legal services sector
But while Denham has said “reform is required to ensure consumers and legal professionals alike are treated fairly in an efficient and transparent system”, she has warned there is “little consensus” over any changes.
The consultation will consider three potential models for reform of regulations and is working with the Law Society of Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates and the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission to identify what reforms should be introduced.
Launching the public consultation, Denham said: “We have one of the best legal professions in the world. However, improvements to the regulatory structure and delivery are needed to further support access to justice.
“The need for regulation reform is well understood and supported by the legal profession and organisations representing the consumer interest.
“It is widely agreed that some aspects of the current system can be significantly improved, such as current restrictions which may inhibit competition in the sector and the complex complaints system.
“This consultation signals the Scottish Government’s willingness to take forward supported recommendations that will deliver an enhanced system of legal services regulation.
“We want a modern, forward-looking legal services regulation framework that will best promote competition, innovation and the public and consumer interest in an efficient, effective and independent legal sector.
“I encourage all those with an interest in this area to make their views known and look forward to a constructive debate on the future of legal services regulation in Scotland.”
The Law Society of Scotland, the professional body representing approximately 12,000 solicitors, welcomed the “long overdue” plans for reform but stressed they must not increase the cost of legal services.
President Ken Dalling said: “The Scottish Government’s own independent review concluded that Scotland is home to a well-educated, well respected legal profession with a high degree of public trust. It said there was “little evidence of significant wrongdoing in the current model”.
“However, we know reforms to the current system are long overdue,” he added.
“Much of the legislation covering legal regulation is over 40 years old and has failed to keep pace with modern practice.
“The system for handling legal complaints is slow, complex and expensive to operate. Rigid regulatory processes all too often place a straitjacket on the Law Society and prevent us from stepping in quickly to protect the public interest when we need to. This is why we have repeatedly pressed the Scottish Government to bring forward reform.
“However, some of the options presented in the Government’s consultation risk undoing much of what already works well within the current system.
“We know the cost of legal services is one of the biggest barriers to people getting the advice they need. Yet the paper presents an option of creating a brand-new regulatory body, adding substantial costs which consumers would ultimately have to bear.
“This threatens the competitiveness of the Scottish legal sector, just as we recover from the Covid pandemic, and risks a loss of jobs to other parts of the UK.
“The government needs to take great care in protecting the strengths of the existing regulatory system but delivering the kind of change we need for the benefit of the public and the legal profession.”