Regulation of Legal Services (Scotland) Bill - stage one debate: speech

Speech in the Scottish Parliament by Minister for Victims and Community Safety Siobhian Brown.

Presiding Officer, I welcome this opportunity to open the debate on the general principles of the Regulation of Legal Services (Scotland) Bill. 

I would like to thank the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, and the Finance and Public Administration Committee for their careful and considered scrutiny of the Bill, and to all those who submitted views and gave evidence at Stage 1. 

I very much welcome the lead Committee’s Stage 1 report, in which they agreed with the general principles of the Bill.

Presiding Officer, the current legislative framework underpinning the regulation of legal services and complaints handling is complex and dated.

This Bill presents a modern regulatory framework designed to promote competition and innovation, while at the same time improving the transparency and public accountability of legal regulation and the legal complaints system and placing the public and consumer interests at its heart.

It sets out the regulatory objectives which must be complied with as legal regulators exercise their functions, including consideration of the Consumer Principles, the Better Regulation Principles, and Human Rights principles. It is a highly technical Bill which builds on existing legislation from 1980, 1990, 2007 and 2010.

The Bill proposes a number of significant and positive changes to the legal services regulatory framework in Scotland and I would like to take this opportunity to outline the many benefits this Bill will bring.

It will streamline the legal complaints system, which many stakeholders have called for, making the process faster and simpler for the consumers and legal practitioners who find themselves involved in it.

This includes introducing a new ability to make complaints against unregulated legal services providers, which increases consumer protection.

The new regulatory framework will introduce greater transparency and accountability of our legal services regulators to deliver a framework which maintains public trust and ensures that regulators are operating their regulatory functions independently of any other function.

There will be a power, for the first time, to review a regulator’s performance and ensure their compliance with their statutory duties and the regulatory objectives. 

Regulators will require to submit annual reports on their performance and category 1 regulators will be subject to freedom of information requirements for the first time.

Regulators will also be required to create a register of all its members which is free and accessible to the public, enabling consumers to access useful information about legal services providers.

Ninety-four percent of respondents to our consultation on the Bill agreed that it was important that the regulatory framework enables access to justice including choice and diversity.

The Bill includes proposals to increase access to justice by removing restrictions on third sector organisations from directly employing solicitors to support their clients in court proceedings.

Scottish Women’s Aid have welcomed this measure, advising that, and I quote, “it will assist in securing dedicated and innovative provision of domestic-abuse competent legal services for women, children and young people experiencing domestic abuse”.

Through the Bill we are introducing regulation of legal businesses which will provide greater powers of oversight for regulators and provide additional protections and consistency for consumers.

In addition, the Bill will ease ownership requirements for alternative business structures allowing innovation such as community ownership of legal businesses, which will benefit the legal sector in terms of attracting investment and in succession planning. These measures are intended to support and promote sustainable legal services, which benefit citizens, principles which ninety-three percent of respondents to our consultation supported.

It also protects members of the public against wrongful use of the title of ‘lawyer’ by those who seek to deceive consumers and imply that they are fully regulated, with the protection that affords.

The Bill expands the remit of the statutory Consumer Panel, giving it a role in undertaking research to provide quality, evidenced-based advice to the sector, in order to ensure decisions are shaped around the needs of the different consumers of legal services.

Presiding Officer, I acknowledge that this Bill has attracted differing views from stakeholders, as did the consultation ahead of the Bill, and it is these differing views that we have had to balance as we aim to modernise the regulatory system. 

Following the introduction of the Bill and having carefully considered the responses to the committee’s call for views, I acknowledged the concerns that were raised in respect of the role that was placed on Scottish Ministers and have committed to address this at Stage 2.

These provisions are only one part of the Bill and are based on existing legislation. Nonetheless, I sought to address those concerns and my officials have been working closely and collaboratively with stakeholders, in particular, the Lord President’s office and the Law Society of Scotland.

Presiding Officer, the Bill has received much support during Stage 1, and I would like to note some of these for those in the Chamber today.

Consumer Scotland welcomed that the Bill will require legal regulators to exercise their regulatory functions in a manner compatible with the consumer principles.

I was also pleased to read the Law Society’s comments to the Equalities Committee which stated, and I quote, “The Bill contains many important reforms”.

The Committee has also heard broad support for proposals in the Bill which reform the legal complaints system. Rosemary Agnew, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman said of measures in the Bill that they enable, and I quote, “the development of best practice”,

Presiding Officer, as I said, in developing this Bill, the Scottish Government sought to ensure that it strikes the right balance between the various interests of stakeholders. The Committee Stage 1 report has recognised that and raised a number of important points and I have addressed these in my written response, and will continue to update the committee after further consideration of the recommendations ahead of Stage 2.

Presiding Officer, this Bill will provide a modern, forward-looking regulatory framework for Scotland that will best promote competition, innovation, and the public and consumer interest in an efficient, effective, and independent legal sector, while placing the consumer and public interest at its heart.


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