The Scottish showdown

It’s all kicking off north of the border. Just as the Scottish government was getting tantalisingly close to enacting an amended Legal Services Bill, a massive spanner has been rammed in the works, with the Scottish Legal Agents Society (SLAS) demanding that the Law Society of Scotland (LSS) drop its support of the bill.

This basically boils down to a standoff between the top-end commercial firms that desperately want the bill to be passed (for which read the ­Scottish big four – leading firms such as Brodies and Burness are not involved) and the high street ­players, who desperately don’t.

There’s mudslinging on all sides, with the pro-ABS lobby calling the SLAS disingenuous for ­claiming its members have been kept in the dark over ABSs, while the smaller firms are accusing their larger counterparts of bullying tactics.

To some degree they both have a point. The LSS vote that gave ABSs the green light in 2008 was skewed by the proxy votes of big-four lawyers, meaning the views of the high street contingent probably weren’t given a fair hearing. At the same time, the big firms’ promise that they will move to the English regulatory regime if ABSs don’t go ahead does smack of heavyhandedness, given that such a move would have a catastrophic effect on the industry in the country.

But the SLAS’s intervention seems ill-conceived and its timing could hardly have been worse. As Burness chairman Philip Rodney points out on page 4 of this week’s issue, things have moved on since ABSs were first mooted. With the bill preparing for a second reading at Holyrood, things have now progressed to a point of no return.

With change in some form a given, Scotland’s lawyers must decide whether they will help guide it; a law society in opposition to ABSs can hardly expect to have influence on the legislation that governs them.

The issue now is whether both sides can reach a compromise that will allow the big four to access the same funding options as their English competitors while protecting the interests of the SLAS’s members. If they can’t the impact on the Scottish profession will be transformational – and not in a good way.