THE LAW Society of Scotland has launched yet another attack on the body that oversees complaints against lawyers months after losing a high-profile court case against it.

The society, which is the representative body for all solicitors operating in the Scottish market, has long been at loggerheads with the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC), railing against it for increasing practitioner fees by 12.5 per cent at the start of this year and accusing it in court of mis-handling dozens of complaints.

With the commission now revealing that the number of new cases it received in the year to June was up by two per cent - significantly below the 12 per cent rise it saw during 2015/16 - Law Society chief executive Lorna Jack has again questioned whether the earlier levy increase was justified.

“Despite record numbers of Scottish solicitors, there were just 23 more complaints than the previous year,” she said.

“This equates to a rise of just two per cent and is in stark contrast to the SLCC’s suggestion from earlier in the year of a double digit percentage rise in complaint numbers.

“When the SLCC increased the levy on solicitors by 12.5 per cent earlier this year, it provoked widespread anger and frustration in the legal profession.

“These updated figures raise further questions around the SLCC’s justification for that increase, costs which ultimately have to be met by consumers.”

However, SLCC chief executive Neil Stevenson said that while the year on year increase in the number of complaints received was small in 2016/17, the levy hike is legitimate in part because the commission is still dealing with a backlog of cases that built up after the Law Society launched its legal action against the SLCC.

In total, the Law Society filed 18 separate cases against the SLCC, with the issue stemming from an earlier court ruling that said complaints against lawyers should not be classified as a hybrid of both conduct and service issues.

As a result the SLCC began reclassifying the hybrid complaints in its system as relating to either service, meaning it would deal with them itself, or conduct, which would make them the responsibility of either the Law Society or the Faculty of Advocates.

However, the Law Society questioned in court both the commission’s power to go about reclassifying those complaints and whether its reclassifications were correct in law.

Mr Stevenson said that the court action meant that in addition to hundreds of cases being “placed on hold” while the court hearing was pending, “resources had to be diverted to pay our legal costs”.

With the Court of Session ultimately finding in the SLCC’s favour in June, Mr Stevenson said the complaints delayed by the court process are “now progressing”, which has added to the SLCC’s workload.

In addition, Mr Stevenson noted that the number of premature cases received by the commission fell from 268 to 256 in the year to the end of June while the number of ineligible claims dropped from 230 to 183.

This has an impact on the SLCC’s resources, he said, because it means that “more complaints are arriving with us and more are also progressing into the later and more time intensive stages of our process”.

“The increasing numbers of complaints, although low in relation to the overall level of work by lawyers, has a dramatic impact on our workload and staffing needs, which required the levy on lawyers to be increased,” he added.

For its part, the body that represents Scotland’s court lawyers, the Faculty of Advocates, welcomed the SLCC’s latest figures, with vice-dean Angela Grahame QC noting that “it is heartening that complaints about advocates remain at a very low level”.

Indeed, of the 1,145 complaints the SLCC received in the year to the end of June, 10 related to advocates. Of that number, just four were accepted.

“There can never be room for complacency, however,” Ms Grahame added. “We are committed to providing an extremely high level of service to the public and would wish to reassure them of our continuous efforts to maintain and improve standards.”

In the meantime, both the commission and the Law Society are in agreement that the complaints process in general is in need of an overhaul, something that is expected to be addressed as part of the Scottish Government’s independent review of legal services regulation.

For Mr Stevenson one area in particular that needs to be looked at is the low bar applied to conduct complaints which means that many cases that would previously have been dealt with as hybrids are now being categorised as conduct only.

This has implications for complainers because the maximum amount of redress for conduct complaints is just £5,000 while the maximum for service complaints is £20,000.

“We hope that the ongoing independent review of legal services regulation may lead to solutions to this and other issues,” Mr Stevenson said.

Meanwhile, Ms Jack said that the The Law Society will “in the next few weeks” unveil a series of proposed reforms that it believes could, if implemented, improve the system for making complaints.

“We have been developing solutions we believe would deliver comprehensive reforms to make the whole complaints system simpler, quicker and more effective for those who depend on it,” Ms Jack said.

“In addition, we are looking to make proposals about short-term changes to existing legislation that could help to speed up the SLCC’s process, in particular around whether or not a complaint is admitted to the process.”