THE LAW Society of Scotland has had the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) in its sights for some time.

Towards the end of last year the trade body’s chief executive Lorna Jack hit out at the commission, whose job it is to classify client complaints against lawyers as being either service or conduct related before dealing with the former itself and passing the latter on to the Law Society or Faculty of Advocates as appropriate.

Part of the issue that led to Ms Jack saying the commission was “not a paragon of effectiveness and efficiency” was that the SLCC, which had decided that some cases were a hybrid of both conduct and service issues, had taken it upon itself to recategorise them after a 2016 court case brought by law firm Anderson Strathern found that hybrids were unlawful.

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With many such complaints being rebranded as service only, however, the Law Society felt the commission was preventing it from performing its investigatory duties and duly launched legal challenges to reclassification decisions the SLCC had made in 17 cases.

In doing so then Law Society president Eilidh Wiseman did not mince her words, saying that the organisation had “strong independent legal advice to suggest the SLCC does not have the statutory power to undertake this recategorisation work”.

“We believe its approach is unlawful and risks establishing a precedent which could undermine the current complaints system,” she added.

The SLCC, which is run by former Law Society representation and professional support director Neil Stevenson, was equally robust in its defence, accusing the Law Society of creating “certain delay, certain cost for everyone, and certain damage to confidence that the current system works” by choosing to take the matter through the court rather than working with the commission in order to find a solution.

With a three-judge panel made up of Lady Paton, Lord Glennie and Lord Turnbull finding in the commission’s favour, it looks like Mr Stevenson was right.

Looking at one case in particular, the judges were asked by the Law Society to rule whether the commission had the power to reclassify the complaint from hybrid to service and whether that reclassification was incorrect in law. Although the judges put forward different opinions on how the case should be resolved, they were clear in their response: the commission did have the power and the reclassification was not incorrect in law.

Unsurprisingly, the SLCC has welcomed the outcome, with a spokesman saying that the decision “supported unequivocally how the SLCC had decided to manage cases that were in the system” to correct the erroneous hybrid categorisations”.

The Law Society, too, has praised the judgment, with current president Graham Matthews defending its decision to take the matter to court in the first place.

“There were clear public interest issues at stake following last year’s court decision and the uncertainty which was created around the handling of complaints with hybrid issues,” he said.

“The judges admitted it was a highly complex case. The divergent views within the final judgment underline that complexity and show how difficult it was to identify the correct way forward.

“However, we now have the legal clarity we need, especially around cases where a decision had already been taken.”

Now the judgment has been handed down 200 hybrid cases that had been put on hold can move forward, although the SLCC pointed out that its running costs – which are paid for by levies on the profession and were vociferously contested by the Law Society earlier this year – will continue to rise as a result of the delay.

“Our budget consultation in the spring of this year highlighted clearly the immediate impact on the profession and public respectively in terms of our levy and the delays and backlog caused by this case,” a spokesman for the SLCC said.

“This, along with further legal fees, will continue to impact on our 2018/19 budget and on delays stemming from the backlog of complaints which has built up.”

For its part, the Law Society is keeping up its pressure on the commission, with Mr Matthews noting that the court case “underlined how the legislative framework around legal complaints needs urgent reform”.

“Improving the complaints system to make it more efficient and effective will form a key part of our evidence to the Scottish Government’s independent review of legal services regulation,” he said.

That review, which launched in April is expected to take a year in total to complete.