This year's AGM of the Law Society of Scotland looks like it might have the potential to turn into the First Battle of Geonosis - but which side is the Republic, and which the Trade Federation?
Is there a Sith Lord behind all this? How would we know? They're all wearing black gowns!
In all fairness, the 'rebels' (or the 'pitiful little band', if you prefer) may have cause to be aggrieved. When the chief executive of the Scottish Legal Aid Board, a 1986-era fossil of Thatcherite centralisation apparently staffed, in my experience, if not by banks of chimpanzees typing Shakespeare then certainly by a host of semi-literate teenage clerkesses from Wallyford, can feel free to verbally abuse the Scottish solicitors' profession in its entirety, then something has certainly broken down somewhere. The subject of the rant was solicitors' competence at submitting Legal Aid applications and filing accounts. My own experience of these matters long ago led me to believe that the Scottish Legal Aid Board is a nest of bureaucratic rent-seekers, poorly schooled in Scottish law (some of their rejections, in the field of personal injuries in particular, were beyond belief), itself a national scandal given that it has no real rationale other than to help determine access to justice, while the Legal Aid regulations themselves were so opaque and poorly framed that it is hardly surprising that a significant number of applications should present difficulties; I suspect that solicitors' difficulties in successfully submitting Legal Aid applications may lie more with the inability of SLAB's teenage clerkesses to understand their own remit, rather than any inability on the part of the solicitors to understand the Legal Aid regulations. Unless I'm greatly mistaken, LSS has recently lost the whole of its Access to Justice Committee, a loss worthy of an Oscar Wilde aphorism.
The business of lawyering developed and persisted in Scotland for centuries before the Law Society of Scotland was cooked up by Clement Attlee. The business will go on, in some way, shape or form. Whether the profession does is another matter. It would be better for the public if the practice of law was to be conducted by a regulated profession, and not by supermarkets. The whole concept of 'KwikLaw' never quite took off, I'll be the first to admit, but for what my opinion's worth the brethren could do worse than take them on at their own game. This division and dissension in the profession is probably just a natural consequence of widening social inequality; it's hard to see what those whom Bertrand Russell described as 'defenders of plutocracy' could feel they have in common with those who assist those on the margins of society. They might all have eyeballs and feet, but that's about it. It didn't used to be like that, of course, and it would be sad if that's the way it is now, with esprit de corps giving way to barratry; yet another reason not to feel too upset about not being a solicitor in Scotland any more.
The lazier, more pretentious type of plutocratic solicitor is fond of quoting The Pie in The Sky Fairy's dictum that "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices." When they do that, of course, they exhibit nothing but their own patent failure to have read 'The Wealth of Nations', for Smith goes on "(b)ut though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary."
Which kind of encapsulates the Law Society of Scotland in a nutshell.
There are times when LSS behaves disgracefully. That weird conflict of interest woven into its nature by statute, making it both advocate for and prosecutor of solicitors in Scotland, means that those who work for it sometimes do some very silly, and very nasty, things - such as allowing the very good names of solicitors in difficulties to become suspected of being muddy. There may be a better alternative to that; fewer than might be imagined may mourn its passing.
However, it's important that the profession still be regulated. The whole TescoLaw thing is, in my opinion, nothing more than a vehicle to enable some solicitors to cash out, those who may think that 1,000 years of tradition has become their own property to do with as they please, and they seem quite prepared to destroy concepts developed over that timeframe to help themselves do it. TescoLaw is not about the public interest, or widening access to justice, but all about private gain. For all its faults, LSS does have a duty to act in the public interest. In the past, it has done that by terrifying and antagonising its own members by turns, perhaps often going too far in public interest's pursuit, but at least it has tried. That spirit of public interest needs to be kept alive within the profession, or lawyering becomes meaningless. If you drive a van for a living, then at least you're delivering food. You're helping people eat, while getting paid to do so. Who does an avaricious lawyer really help? And to those preparing for battle, one need only say - it's never to early to call your solicitor.