I am delighted to introduce my first Annual Report for the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal. I was elected as Chair of the Tribunal in June 2021, and it has proved to be an eventful time to lead the Tribunal. I speak on behalf of all members when I wish my predecessor Nicholas Whyte all the best for the future. He stood down at the conclusion of his term of office at the end of 2021, having served the Tribunal with excellence for 15 years, five of those years as Chair.
It will come as no surprise that the pandemic continues to influence the way the Tribunal operates. During this reporting year which covers the period from 31 October 2020 to 1 November 2021, most hearings have taken place online. It is likely that much of our procedural and preliminary hearings will continue to be held remotely in the next reporting year. However, we are looking forward to holding some more evidential hearings in person next year, as we have experienced that these are most effective in person. I am very grateful to the Tribunal members, all parties and the Tribunal staff for adapting so well to the challenges of online working. It has required flexibility and compromise and I am delighted that everyone has pulled together so well to allow the Tribunal to fulfil its obligations. Virtual tribunals have allowed those outside the central belt to participate in hearings more easily. It is sometimes more convenient for interested parties to observe proceedings online.
Complaints to the Tribunal are down this year. However, the higher number of appeals experienced in recent years has held steady. Although the number of complaints has decreased, Tribunal cases are becoming more complex and often require consideration of preliminary issues before substantive hearings. This has led to the Tribunal having to sit on more days this year even though the number of new cases has decreased. As we move out of the pandemic, it is anticipated that the number of new complaints will rise again.
This year, the Tribunal has made progress on redrafting its procedural rules. It is hoped that these will be available for consultation in the next reporting year. The Tribunal’s rules must be made with the concurrence of the Lord President. This year the Tribunal also consulted on the way it awards expenses and work on this is ongoing. Any changes will be set out on the Tribunal’s website in due course.
The Scottish Government’s consultation on the Review of the Regulation of Legal Services in Scotland closed just after the end of this reporting year. As has been noted in previous annual reports, the Tribunal has 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 continues to feed these views into the consultation on legislative change where appropriate.
I look forward to leading the Tribunal into the next year. There are bound to be challenges but the Tribunal is excellently placed to meet these. The Tribunal is an independent judicial body, with legal and lay perspectives. It always keeps in mind its dual purposes of protecting the public and upholding the reputation of the profession.