This has been an unusual year for all of us and that experience has been no different for the Tribunal. During the first part of the year all Tribunal hearings were conducted in person. Part way through this reporting year, in March 2020, restrictions due to coronavirus were introduced. The Tribunal responded swiftly to the challenges imposed by the pandemic and by June 2020 all of its business moved online. “Virtual” Tribunals became the norm and these have proved to be very effective. While not appropriate for all kinds of hearings, the Tribunal hopes to maintain their use, particularly for procedural and preliminary matters, even once things return to some semblance of normality. Virtual tribunals have allowed greater participation by those geographically distant from Edinburgh and have also made it easier for Tribunal proceedings to be observed by interested parties. There have been cost savings to the Tribunal and parties’ expenses. Moving to online hearings was smoother due to the introduction of electronic papers, a transition which has taken place over the last few years. I am very grateful to the Tribunal members and all parties for adapting so well to these changes and challenges which have allowed the Tribunal to continue to fulfil its obligations. Hearings in person are still taking place in cases where a virtual hearing would not be suitable and it is safe to do so. The Tribunal held one hearing in person in November 2020 at Perth and another is scheduled for the next reporting year. The Tribunal has worked hard to ensure that these hearings can take place safely in accordance with relevant guidance.
Progress relating to the Review of the Regulation of Legal Services in Scotland continued this reporting year, although delayed now by the pandemic. Last year, the Tribunal participated in the Government’s consultation on the recommendations contained in Esther Roberton’s report, “Fit for the Future”. The Tribunal highlighted its concerns about the convoluted complaints process, the delay in cases reaching the Tribunal, the absence of a fitness to practise regime for solicitors, the current arrangements for appointing solicitor members, and the inability to impose interim orders on solicitors whose actions may be a danger to the public. The Tribunal believes that a disciplinary tribunal for solicitors that is completely independent of any regulator is essential. It will continue to feed these views into the Scottish Government’s process when it consults again on the issue and makes proposals for legislative change.
This year, the Tribunal has also made progress on redrafting its procedural rules. A small group of Tribunal members met several times over this reporting year to discuss the new rules and to consider the first draft which has been prepared with external assistance. Once a final draft has been formulated, stakeholders will be consulted before the draft rules are submitted for the Lord President’s approval. Linked to the consideration of its procedural rules, the Tribunal is also thinking about the way it awards expenses. A consultation on this topic is likely in the next reporting year.
On a personal note, the term of my current appointment to the Tribunal is due to expire in September 2021. By then I will have been on the Tribunal for 15 years and will be standing down. This will therefore be the last annual report which I issue on behalf of the Tribunal. A new Chair will introduce next year’s report. A number of changes and challenges have occurred over the last four and half years while I have been Chair. No doubt there will be more in future. However, I am confident that moving forward, the Tribunal will continue its excellent work to protect the public and uphold the reputation of the profession.