Changing the culture: interview with Graham Matthews of the Law Society of Scotland
ASSOCIATE FEATURE: Law Society of Scotland president Graham Matthews outlines the priorities for the legal profession
Graham Matthews, President of the Law Society of Scotland - Image credit: Law Society of Scotland
Ahead of the Scottish Parliament election last year, the Law Society of Scotland published its priorities for the sector.
Since then, of course, there has been the Brexit vote, which has had an impact on the legal services market as on others, but many of the other issues, such as access to justice and modernising the profession, remain current too. Has there been progress since last May?
“Yes, undoubtedly there’s progress made because we’ve now got the announcement of the review of the legal services market, so that’s progress,” says Graham Matthews, who took up the role of president of the Law Society three weeks ago, following a year as vice-president.
But, he adds: “In terms of the access to justice, it’s very slow, I think. We launched our defend legal aid campaign a year ago, which we had tremendous support for, and here we are a year on and as far as I can see, there has yet to be any real change in the approach to legal aid.
“More change is coming in with the police station duties, the code of practice from the Scottish Legal Aid Board, but the lack of money remains an obstacle.
“Yes, there’s austerity everywhere – but the lack of money currently available to pay for the Police Station Duty Scheme – which can see solicitors visiting detained suspects at any time of the day or night, often miles from where they are based – is not doing an awful lot for access to justice.”
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Legal aid is crucial to ensuring access to justice for everyone and there are around 270,000 cases a year in Scotland, but the statistics on pay for legal aid work in Scotland are quite shocking, with independent research commissioned by the Law Society showing that around a quarter of the work involved in criminal legal aid cases and a third of civil legal aid case work is basically going unpaid, with solicitors at some of the smaller firms finding themselves earning less than the minimum wage for legal aid work.
Civil legal aid is a particular concern for Matthews. He says it “bothers [him] a lot” because it is so badly paid fewer solicitors can afford to do it and there’s “definitely unmet demand”.
“We need to work to ensure that people can access a solicitor who can help them, no matter where they live and regardless of their financial background.
“There are more folk doing criminal legal aid work. But with civil legal aid it’s becoming increasingly hard to find somebody that will take on a case,” he says.
An independent review of legal aid in Scotland, chaired by Martyn Evans of the Carnegie Trust, which will offer recommendations for change, was launched by the Scottish Government in February. What does Matthews hope will come out of it?
“I think the problem is going to be that unless there’s going to be money there to conduct a complete root and branch overhaul of the whole system, then can they do any more than tinker at the edges?” he answers.
“But, you know what I would like to see? A reduction in the bureaucracy involved. I’ve met Colin Lancaster [chair of the Scottish Legal Aid Board] and I’ve had what I thought was a very useful chat with [him].
“I understand they’ve got a job to do, but it has to improve and become more efficient. There is too much bureaucracy, with people querying claims for really small amounts which then go through and are authorised – it just wastes so much time.
“But the Legal Aid Board have a duty to make sure they get value for money and somewhere in the midst of all that mix, there has to be a sensible solution to this, but it isn’t the current system.”
Also on the financial front are concerns about a 12.5 per cent increase in charges by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) this year.
The SLCC payment is a compulsory charge levied on all practising lawyers, including solicitors and advocates, to cover the cost of investigating complaints, so there is no option but to pay the increased charge, despite the society campaigning for a reconsideration.
“It just seems completely wrong,” Matthews says. “There is no oversight of the SLCC and they’ve been able to set a budget with a 12.5 per cent increase on last year.
“Despite us raising this with the SLCC itself, the Scottish Government and local MSPs across Scotland, it has not changed.
“We could all justify why we need to spend 12.5 per cent more than we currently are, and therefore get 12.5 per cent more pay.
“Every one of us could do that, but in reality, most of us know it’s not going to work because we don’t have a captive audience who’ve no choice but to pay it.
However, he does add that he has “some sympathy for the SLCC as well”.
“I do appreciate that they’ve got to function and they’ve got to have the budget to function, but I’m sure they could have done things differently.
“Their staff will need a pay rise in line with inflation, undoubtedly, but that’s a tiny percentage of the increase.
“It’s the rest of the increase that you think, well, what’s it for and do you really need to set a budget increase that’s almost eight times the rate of inflation to cover the costs?”
It’s an issue that is likely to be looked at as part of the legal services review, launched by the Scottish Government in April this year.
The 15-month review is not something that’s likely to make headline news that the general public will be interested in, Matthews suggests, but it is very much needed and the benefits will trickle through.
It will consider how to update the regulation of the legal profession. The main law governing the profession, the Solicitors (Scotland) Act, is now more than 35 years old and much has changed in the sector since then, so an update is overdue and the review has been welcomed by the Law Society.
Matthews explains: “The 1980 act hasn’t allowed us as an organisation and as a profession to modernise in the way perhaps we want to.
“More importantly, our members have adapted to accommodate a vastly changed economic environment and we have to regulate without sometimes the best power to do so.
“We regulate very efficiently, but we need new legislation to provide us with the means to regulate for the profession as it is now, in the 21st century.”
One of the key changes is the business structure of law firms. In 1980, they were usually high street companies, either sole traders or traditional partnerships with a few partners.
Now there are limited liability partnerships and incorporated practices, some very large with 70 or more partners, and the legislation simply isn’t designed to govern those.
In terms of what’s on the horizon, Brexit remains a concern, with major firms already feeling the pinch as clients are wary about investing in such an uncertain climate, but it also remains difficult to advise at a time when the detail remains unknown.
Matthews jokes that seminars on Brexit are a business growth area.
These are all issues that are facing the profession, but Matthews has his own personal passions that he may want to pursue during his year at the helm.
He is enthusiastic about the Law Society’s educational trust, which was launched last year and will offer funds and mentoring with experienced solicitors to students from deprived backgrounds who have been accepted to study law from autumn 2017.
He is concerned about the drop-out rate among women in their thirties and the difficulties in filling some posts in rural areas, such as his home patch of Aberdeenshire.
However, he’s particularly concerned about the long-hours culture within the profession, citing the example of a newspaper interview he read recently where a law trainee mentioned working 12-hour days.
“I probably need to go on about this and say ‘this is ridiculous’,” Matthews says. “Our trainees are not expected to put in that sort of shift, because if you’ve got that much work to do, you should be thinking about taking on another trainee or member of staff.
“And there’s an assumption, I think, within the profession, and I don’t know where it’s come from, that unless you’re doing 11, 12-hour days, you’re not going to get promotion. You might just be wrong about that.
“I think there’s a culture shift [needed], but looking back, when I was in my 20s and I used to go to work, I dropped the kids off at school at quarter past nine in the morning, but I often didn’t get home until 9 o’clock at night and I didn’t live more than 10 minutes from the office, so I think maybe it hasn’t changed that much. But it doesn’t mean it’s right.”
As Matthews begins his presidency, it seems he may have more than enough issues to be getting on with over the next 12 months.
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