This item was published during the term of a previous administration that ended in April 2007
Legal Profession and Legal Aid Bill
The Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill, which will establish an independent legal complaints handling body and improve access to legal aid, was approved by MSPs in the Parliament tonight.
Deputy Justice Minister Johann Lamont said that the Parliamentary milestone was a 'significant victory' for consumers.
Ms Lamont said:
"This Executive is committed to providing a justice system that meets the needs of individuals, families and communities in a modern Scotland. Part of this work is improving access to justice for all our people.
"This bill, which has now received cross-party support, will create an independent complaints handling body that has the interests of consumers at its heart and will also enable legal representation to be provided by a wider range of professionals.
"More and more the public is demanding accountability and transparency in the delivery of public services, including legal services. They are quite right to do so and it is encouraging to see that this is increasingly recognised by the professionals delivering these services.
"That is why the Bill establishes the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission to ensure that any complaints against the legal profession are resolved quickly and effectively by a body which is seen to be completely impartial.
"Everyone expects choice, consistency and transparency when looking for legal advice. Already we have increased the number of Public Defence Solicitors Offices in Scotland to widen the range of choices available to accused persons.
"We are now able further to improve access to publicly funded legal advice by extending the range of people that can provide advice and assistance on civil matters to include non-lawyers and also by enabling the Legal Aid Board to provide grants to support and develop the provision of advice. We are committed to ensuring that people receive the legal advice they need from those best placed to give it.
"We promised to improve public confidence in the handling of complaints about legal services and widen access to legal aid and this is what we have delivered. The passage of this Bill through Parliament represents a significant victory for consumers in Scotland."
Martyn Evans, Director of the Scottish Consumer Council said:
"This bill is an important step forward. It will introduce much greater transparency and independence into how complaints against solicitors and advocates are handled.
"This is very much in the interests of consumers, as well as the legal profession. A system that is seen to be transparent will command greater public confidence and credibility.
"The bill also gives the public greater choice when they seek legal advice or representation which is very welcome."
The Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill, which was approved by Parliament today, resulted from two related strands of policy development: a programme of improving arrangements for the handling of complaints against lawyers and a programme to improve the delivery of legal assistance.
The establishment of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission builds on the outcome of a consultation exercise. "Reforming Complaints Handling: Building Consumer Confidence" which ran from May-August 2005. 85 per cent of those who responded to the consultation supported the idea of an independent complaints handling body.
The new powers in the Bill will:
- Create a Scottish Legal Complaints Commission independent of the legal profession.
- Make proportionate redress available to consumers when complaints are upheld, including compensation of up to £20,000 in cases where substantial loss has been sustained as a result of a lawyer's negligence.
- Transfer the power to grant legal aid in solemn cases from the courts to the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB).
- Enable SLAB to provide grants to pay for civil advice provision or the support or develop its provision.
- Allow SLAB to fund advisors with appropriate skills and expertise, not just solicitors. This will include experienced non-lawyers in the voluntary sector who specialise in social justice issues and
- enable a wider range of legal service suppliers to provide representation, by permitting provisions in the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1990 dealing with extension of rights of audience and rights to conduct litigation to be commenced.
The stage 3 amendments introduced by Jim Wallace MSP and Jackie Baillie MSP, which the Executive supported, provide the possibility of an appeal to the Court of Session against decisions of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission. The court will need to grant an application for leave to appeal before an appeal could proceed. Appeal will only be possible on the restricted grounds that the Commission's decision was based on an error of law;
- There was a procedural impropriety in any hearing conducted on the complaint by the Commission;
- The Commission acted irrationally in the exercise of its discretion;
- The Commission's decision was not supported by the facts it found- i.e. it was perverse.
These provisions indicate that appeals are likely to be infrequent and focused on significant issues. The amendments provide that the Commission will be a party to any appeal, which means that the appeal will be intimated to it and it will be able to decide whether to appear or be represented at the hearing.