The Scottish Government has set out a central purpose of increasing sustainable economic growth. In its economic strategy 1, it identifies a supportive business environment as one of the strategic priorities which will help to achieve that purpose, saying that:
'The challenge for government is to create the best possible environment for competitive businesses, entrepreneurship and innovation to flourish.'
The strategy goes on to affirm that:
'Effective and modern legal and criminal justice systems, underpinning a safer and stronger Scotland, provide an essential sound basis for conducting business and securing growth.'
One of the key sectors identified in the economic strategy is financial and business services, with the government committed to building a critical mass of activity, and helping to create the right environment for its competiveness and growth.
Scotland's legal system and profession matters to our country's economic goals because:
- the profession in itself contributes around £1bn a year to Scotland's economy;
- high quality legal services are a key factor in a supportive business environment, particularly in encouraging firms to maintain head office functions in Scotland;
- being able to resolve disputes as effectively as possible is an important contributory factor to success in many areas of business.
Over the last few years, much has been done to make our legal system more efficient and effective, including the development of Commercial Courts. The current Civil Courts Review, led by Lord Gill, will identify further opportunities to improve access to justice, and early resolution of disputes.
However, in the past there has been a tendency to see the needs of the justice system and the needs of business as separate. No sustained attention has been paid, for example, to the fact that many businesses, including major Scottish businesses, often choose to resolve disputes in England rather than Scotland.
That is why the Justice Secretary established the Business Experts and Law Forum with a remit to see what could be done to enable and encourage businesses, so far as appropriate: to choose Scotland as the seat of their business and legal activities; to look to Scottish lawyers for their advice; and to look to the Scottish courts as their dispute resolution forum of choice.
The role of the Forum was not to undertake research or present detailed proposals for reform, but to identify the opportunities and areas of focus that will allow Government and the legal profession to work together to ensure that Scotland's legal profession continues to thrive and, even more importantly, to ensure that the legal system can help business, and therefore Scotland as a whole, to flourish.
The meetings of the Forum took place before the recent turmoil in the financial markets, and the likely consequence of an economic downturn. These events will have profound effects on Scottish business and on legal services. Law firms have already been affected by the slowdown in the property market, and other forms of legal business are likely to be adversely affected. Nonetheless, the basic message of this report remains valid - that Scotland's legal system has much to offer business, but that more can be done by the profession, the Government and the courts to maximise the contribution of the legal system to Scotland's economic wellbeing.