The Law Society has alleged that new legislation published by the Scottish Parliament “risks seriously undermining the independence of the legal profession from the state.”
The society said the new Regulation of Legal Services (Scotland) Bill introduced by the Scottish Government will see the Law Society continue as the regulator of Scottish solicitors, with additional powers to act to protect the public interest.
Changes are also proposed to the complaints system to make it simpler and quicker.
However, the Law Society has alleged that new proposed powers allowing Scottish Ministers to intervene and direct regulators are “deeply alarming” and risk seriously undermining the independence of the legal regulation from the state.
Law Society President Murray Etherington said: “Some aspects of the proposed Bill are deeply alarming.
“One of the most important roles of the legal sector is to challenge government on behalf of clients and hold it to account.
“The proposed new power allowing Scottish Ministers to intervene directly in regulation risks seriously undermining the independence of the legal profession from the state.
“This is clearly unacceptable and needs removed from the Bill by the Scottish Parliament as the Bill progresses.
“There is still an opportunity to use this Bill as a catalyst for real, positive and long-lasting change. Maintaining professional standards and protecting clients is some of the Law Society’s most important public interest work.
“However, much of the existing legislation on regulation is now over 40 years old and is simply unfit for today’s modern and diverse legal sector.
“This is why we went to the Scottish Government almost a decade ago, asking for change. The complaints system in particular needs reformed to make it quicker and simpler for the benefit of all involved.
“There is also a chance to better protect consumers from unqualified providers of legal services, especially when things go wrong.”
The Scottish Government said: “The Regulation of Legal Services (Scotland) Bill would for the first time, make it possible for complaints to be made against those who provide legal services to the public but who are not regulated.
“The appeal process for complaints about poor service will be simplified in line with an ombudsman approach helping to make the system more accessible and affordable.
“If passed by Parliament, the Bill would also place legal duties on the profession’s current regulators – the Law Society of Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates and the Association of Commercial Attorneys – to be more transparent and accountable in their regulatory work.
“They will be required to protect the principle that consumers should be treated fairly at all times and have access to a range of legal services which are affordable and suited to their needs.
“Government Ministers will also be able to launch a review of the regulators and require them to make improvements or impose financial sanctions if they fail to regulate in the public interest.
“Subject to Parliament’s approval, the Bill would also remove restrictions preventing charities, law centres and citizen’s advice bodies from directly employing solicitors to provide certain legal services to some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens.
“Growth and competition within the legal services sector will also be supported by making it easier for legal firms to go into partnership with other types of professionals such as accountants to provide shared services.”
Minister for Victims and Community Safety Siobhian Brown said: “As a service which is often accessed by people during times of great stress or trauma, improvements to the regulatory structure are needed to further support people’s access to justice.
“By ensuring Scotland has a forward-looking legal regulatory framework, we will promote competition and innovation while ensuring that consumer interests are safeguarded.
“Measures such as preventing unqualified people from calling themselves lawyers will instil greater consumer confidence by providing more protections and choice.
“The Scottish Government is committed to reform, and will continue to engage stakeholders representing both consumer and legal perspectives as this legislation proceeds through Parliament.”