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Lawyers losing their faculties

30 September 07 12:22 GMT
By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

As we have seen in the past week, the Scots legal profession likes to guard its independence.

Scotland's senior judge, Lord Hamilton, wrote a stiff letter to the Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini warning her she was undermining the independence of the judiciary by daring to criticise the judge in the World's End murder case.

She is the chief prosecutor and she was reporting to parliament on a matter of great public interest.

So has the legal profession become so "independent" that it's lost touch with the democratic age? If so, it's in for a rude awakening.

Saturday was open day at the Court of Session in Edinburgh.

Several thousand people turned up to be given a rare glimpse of the advocates' library.

Burke and Hare were tried here among the brown books and fading pictures.

David Hume was once the official "keeper" of the library.

But the ancient Faculty of Advocates, founded in 1532, is under arrest. It's been accused of harming the interests of consumers.

The Office of Fair Trading upheld a complaint by the consumer organisation, Which.

Scottish problem

The OFT said the ban on advocates forming partnerships should be removed and the public should be allowed direct access, rather than having to go through a solicitor.

Deregulation is fast happening south of the border and Martyn Evans of the Scottish Consumer Council said reform was on the way in Scotland.

He said: "The idea of liberalising the professions, both solicitors and advocates, is absolutely vital. And I think it will happen.

"The status quo is not an option."

He said there had to be a Scottish solution for a Scottish problem.

The Office of Fair Trading suggested the Scottish government came up with a plan for reform by the end of the year.

The justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, obviously has reforms in mind but he is not thinking of outright de-regulation.

He said: "I think at the end of the day you need some element of regulation.

"But what we need to do is to allow our Faculty of Advocates, and our whole legal profession, not simply to continue to serve Scotland, as they have done well for centuries, but to deal in a global market.

"Our legal eagles are capable of working on a pan-UK and global basis, just as our banks and financial services are already doing."

So the times they are a-changing for the old faculty.

Advocates may well be able to form partnerships in future, say, with international law firms.

They may be allowed to work with the new breed of solicitor advocates, or take instructions from clients directly rather than second hand through a solicitor.

Closed shop

There have already been some small moves towards reform.

There has been some specialisation allowed among the 11 stables into which the 460 individual advocates are herded.

Stephen Woolman QC, the present keeper of the advocates' library, said it was no longer a closed shop.

He said: "We have people coming from all walks of life and not everybody earns colossal sums of money."

For the record, a junior advocate earns around £30,000 a year, a senior advocate £80,000 and top earners get anything from £100,000 to £300,000.

Advocates can indeed come from all backgrounds. Current members of the bar includes a former merchant seaman, a spray painter, a priest, a disc jockey and a member of parliament.

About a quarter of advocates are women.

As to the efficiency of our senior court lawyers, it is difficult to measure on the civil law side.

But since devolution in 1999, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission has reviewed 840 cases. 67 were referred back to the High Court.

And of the appeals so far held, 25 have been granted. That is a failure rate of 3%.

But some failures have been spectacular. Joe Steele and Thomas T C Campbell were cleared after 20 years for the Ice Cream War murders.

There has been the collapse of the World's End trial, and who knows what will happen in the appeal to be held shortly by the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al Megrahi.

So Scotland's advocates are on trial.

The open day was a chance for the jury to visit the scene of the alleged inefficiencies, restrictive practices and other misdemeanours.

The Burke and Hare trial lasted just two days, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1828.

The verdict this time may not be so easy to reach and it will certainly take a lot longer.

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