07 September 2006

S2M-4713 Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 7 September 2006

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

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Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-4713, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, that the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill.


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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): We should not imagine that this issue of principle has arisen in recent times. Some 2,000 years ago, the Romans asked the question, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"—who guards the guards? In essence, that is the principle that we are discussing today. As it has taken 2,000 years to get to where we are, it is likely that we will not fully resolve the issue.

Nonetheless, an effort has been made. It is an effort that we in the SNP commend, while continuing to be engaged in addressing the details. I particularly welcome Hugh Henry's comments in his opening remarks, which addressed many of the core concerns from practitioners that, like other constituency members, I have had in my in-tray. In particular, I received a letter in the past week from the dean of the faculty of procurators for Peterhead and Fraserburgh. He pointed out that in that area—which is a substantial part of my constituency, although not quite all of it—only two firms currently do civil legal aid cases and that any reduction in that number would be pretty catastrophic to the provision of services.

Like other members I have a constant stream, if not a flood, of people coming to my office because they have the fallacious idea that because I occasionally indulge in legal fisticuffs in the committee room with the Deputy Minister for Justice—who, like me, is not legally qualified—I can give them free legal advice. They are half right, as I do not charge for the privilege, but the other half is highly dubious, and I am always careful to point that out to them. Equally, I often find myself being asked to find someone a lawyer. Of course, that is dangerous. I am always careful to give people at least three options so that they make the choice. I do not tell them which one to go for, because sure as hell they would be back to blame me at the end of the day. The relationships between the legal professions and their clients are complex, and I hope that we will develop and improve them.

Like others, I recognise that not all complaints are well founded. For a period, my family lawyer was top of the list that Scotland Against Crooked Lawyers compiles. I did not understand that, but I felt disappointed as he moved down the list and was eventually relegated from it, because the list provided an excellent opportunity to tease a highly professional man whose integrity I utterly respect—as I do almost all the lawyers whom I meet. However, I have met lawyers who must be dealt with, and we need a process for that.

Like John Swinney, I am concerned about the difficulty of teasing out a complaint and stuffing it in one box rather than another. As members, we inevitably have constituents at our surgeries who say, at the end of what we think is the case that they are putting, "And another thing," so that the case moves into another domain. Alternatively, when we examine the needs of someone who is elderly and infirm, we find that they relate to council activity, Scottish Parliament care obligations and social security, which is Westminster's responsibility.

Problems do not fit into boxes just because we have created boxes, so for the customer—the person with the complaint—we must deal with their complaint in a way that does not make it a problem for them, whatever box they try to put it in. The customer must feel that their problem is being dealt with justly.

Jeremy Purvis: Does the member agree that what matters is having the correct processes? If a complaint is about service from the police, it goes to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, but if the complaint relates to the police and criminal activity, it is right for it to go to the Procurator Fiscal Service. That should not confuse the public, because the system is correct.

Stewart Stevenson: Jeremy Purvis is correct. In paragraph 45 of its report, the Justice 2 Committee highlights the issues related to pursuing potential criminal activity by lawyers, so such considerations apply in the context of lawyers, too. The work is not easy; if it were, it would have been done a heck of a long time ago.

The minister's announcement on levies will be welcomed by my constituents and is extremely helpful. It is a tribute to him that he has responded so promptly to what the committee said.

I—and, I suspect, others—do not really understand how the right of third parties to complain will work. In my mind, that will be like a prisoner who jumps over a prison wall and is knocked down by a bus while running across the road suing the prison officer who failed to keep him in prison. We appear to be creating such indirectness. I hope that we are not making a rod for our own back.

Paragraph 28 of the Justice 2 Committee's report concerns some difficulties that sole practitioners might experience in dealing with complaints that come to their door in the first instance. I encourage the legal profession to think hard about that and the Executive to respond to any inputs from that source, because in rural areas such as that which I represent that is and will be an issue.


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