STEPHEN Blane didn’t know it at the time, but Edinburgh practice Urquharts had big plans for him when he joined it from Ketchen & Stevens nearly two decades ago. Its litigation partner Alastair Thornton, who had recently completed a stint as president of the Law Society of Scotland, was making plans to retire and the firm needed someone to take on the mantle of holding negligent solicitors to account.

“I joined in 2003 and although I didn’t know it I was being brought in to replace Alastair Thornton, who was retiring to become a sheriff,” Mr Blane recalled.

“He had been president of the Law Society and when he was there he saw that there had to be some sort of mechanism for clients who wanted to sue a solicitor because it’s not easy to find someone to sue a lawyer.”

Mr Thornton became one of the founder members of the Law Society’s pursuers’ panel in 2002 and, when Mr Blane filled Mr Thornton’s place at the firm, he replaced him on the panel too. It has been a major focus of his practice ever since.

Originally made up of four solicitors, the panel now numbers seven, all of whom have expertise in bringing cases against other solicitors and all of whom provide what Mr Blane believes is a vital service.

“If you live in a small town and you say to a solicitor that the chap across the road made a mess of the advice they gave, they won’t want to sue them, but if they can instruct someone else to take it away that’s great,” he said. “The panel is a useful way of finding someone not connected with the case or solicitor who can give an objective and fair assessment of a case’s prospects and take it forward.”

The first port of call for most people making a complaint against a solicitor will be the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC), which in 2018/19 received 1,326 new complaints, up from 1,227 the previous year. The SLCC investigates matters relating to the professionalism of the service provided and can award compensation up to a maximum of £20,000. The Law Society and Faculty of Advocates deal with conduct complaints, which, if successful, can result in maximum compensation payments of £5,000.

In some cases, though, particularly where the damages being sought are considerably higher, court is seen as a better option, although Mr Blane stressed that one of the most important parts of his job is to try to keep matters out of the court system.

“There’s a limit to the compensation the SLCC can get but it can be limitless through the courts - we aim to achieve what the loss is,” he said.

“I deal with 15 to 20 new enquiries in the course of a year and not all of those will progress to a full claim that will result in damages being paid but the highest amount of damages I’ve recovered was in excess of £2 million.

“A lot of these cases aren’t heard in any court; part of the skill of any court lawyer is not ending up in court and I’d always try to negotiate and resolve a claim outwith court.

“Sometimes I’ll raise a court action because I’m up against a time limit or to force the other side to the table, but I probably litigate less than 10% of the claims I handle and of those only about 10% will proceed to a full hearing.

“Court is a last resort - I always hope to resolve matters through discussion and mediation.”

Though many solicitors are loath to take action against their fellow practitioners, Mr Blane said that in reality most being complained about understand that mistakes do happen and clients are within their right to seek redress for that.

“It can be tricky making a claim against another solicitor but I’ve only had one really bad reaction,” he said. “We all pay into the same master insurance policy so we know the potential [for action] is there. Most solicitors realise that mistakes will happen and it’s only right that they are put right.”

Ultimately, it is the consumers and clients who believe they have a genuine grievance that Mr Blane is concerned about, with the pursuers’ panel being designed to give them the hope that, if nothing else, their case will at least be listened to.

“I suspect there are quite a lot of people who give up because they’ve tried two or three solicitors and can’t find anybody to take their case on,” he said.

“For someone who has made those phone calls and not had any joy it’s hugely important to be told there’s a list of people who do this type of work.”