Scotland’s legal system could be “open to political abuse” under new SNP justice reforms giving more power to ministers, the country’s judges have warned.

In a stinging critique of new Holyrood legislation, Scotland’s senior judiciary said they were “fundamentally opposed” to changes that appeared to threaten their independence.

They said it was of “critical constitutional importance” that the public were protected from “the arbitrary abuse of power by the state” by an independent legal profession.

However the Regulation of Legal Services Bill, which is being scrutinised by MSPs this autumn, would see the government “take into its own hands the power to control lawyers”.

The judges highlighted recent attacks on judicial independence in Poland and Israel as “a timely reminder of the need for constant vigilance” against government interference.

Lawyers must be able to represent people “without fear of reprisal”, they said.

“The dangers of transferring aspects of regulatory power over the legal profession from the judiciary to the government, as proposed in this Bill, cannot be overstated.”

A series of other legal bodies have also savaged the legislation.

The Law Society of Scotland said it was not aware of a similar power grab "in any other western democracy".

The Bill is intended to reform how legal services are regulated in Scotland.

This is currently done by the Law Society of Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates and the Association of Construction Attorneys under the general supervision of the Lord President, the country’s most senior judge, currently Lord Carloway. 

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The Bill would empower ministers to review the regulatory performance of these bodies and allow new bodies to become regulators.

Ministers say the aim is “to provide a modern, forward-looking regulatory framework for Scotland that will best promote competition, innovation, and the public and consumer interest in an efficient, effective, and efficient legal sector”.

The Bill was introduced at Holyrood in April by SNP Justice Secretary Angela Constance and a consultation on it closed earlier this month.

Parliament’s Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee is due to take evidence on the Bill’s general principles by mid-December.

The Law Society of Scotland has already warned that powers to let ministers intervene and direct regulators are “deeply alarming” and undermine the legal system’s independence.

In their unanimous submission to the consultation, Scotland’s 36 judges are scathing.

They write: “These proposals are a threat to the independence of the legal profession and the judiciary. It is of critical constitutional importance that there is a legal profession which is willing and able to stand up for the citizen against the government of the day.

“The judiciary is fundamentally opposed to this attempt to bring the legal procession under political control. If the Bill is passed in its current form, Scotland will be viewed internationally as a country whose legal system is open to political abuse.”

The judges particularly took issue with the Government’s plan to “impose itself as a co-regulator along with the Lord President”.

They said the Bill, in its current form, would limit the role of the Lord President and endanger the continued independence of the legal profession “by bringing aspects of legal regulation under government, and therefore political, control”.

This threatened “the separation of powers between the government, parliament and the judiciary. It constitutes an unacceptable interference by the government with the judiciary”.

The Bill would also give rise to a “grave conflict of interest” by giving ministers the power to “control the activities of lawyers who might be acting in cases for and against them”.

The judges noted Scottish Ministers had been directly involved in more than 4,120 cases in the Scottish courts since 2018, some involving matters of great political sensitivity, and independence from government was therefore “critical”. 

The submission said: “The process of judicial review exists to allow citizens (and governments) to challenge executive power safe in the knowledge that an independent judiciary will hear the case without fear or favour.

“It is essential that lawyers acting for and against the government in such cases act independently; that they are not under the control of the government and that they do not fear being subject to regulatory sanction if they win or lose a politically controversial case.”

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However the judiciary said that if the Bill was amended to meet its concerns “it should form an acceptable foundation for updating the regulation of legal services in Scotland”.

In their submission to the Equalities Committee, the Law Society of Scotland said: "Of greatest concern to us...  is the desire of the Scottish Government to be granted extensive and exceptional new powers of intervention over how legal professionals are regulated. 

"These powers, which we have not been able to identify in any other western democracy, risk seriously undermining the rule of the law and the independence of Scotland’s legal sector from the state.” 

The Faculty of Advocates said the reforms "seek to innovate in a way that carries substantial risks to the independence of the legal profession and for which there is no objective justification". 

It went on: "The Bill contains provisions giving the Scottish Ministers very broad powers, not only in making regulations but also allowing interventions in some circumstances.

"This is not so much building on the existing framework as creating unjustified mechanisms which may be used in the future in a way that undermines and compromises the value of an independent profession and independent regulation.”

While the International Bar Association’s submission said parts of the Bill "represent an alarming and dangerous assault by the Scottish Government on the independence of the legal profession. At a stroke, it risks undermining the rule of law in Scotland and harming the international reputation of Scotland and its legal sector.”

The Scottish Government said the proposals were intended to deliver a transparent and accessible justice system and built on existing laws involving ministers and the Lord President working together.

A Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government has no intention of changing the vital importance of having an independent legal sector and the promotion of an independent, strong and diverse legal profession is enshrined in the Bill.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Parliament said: "The Committee will consider the submissions it has received, and then invite witnesses to give evidence in public as it continues to scrutinise the Bill."