What do you expect from a professional body?
My own view is that an organisation representing a profession has three roles:
- to maintain standards in the profession concerned
- to promote it, for example by supporting relevant research and investigation, and
- one not always spoken of by the professions themselves, to exercise a quasi-trade union function to the benefit of their members, trying to control numbers who enter the profession and influence the incomes they receive.
Now consider the statement made yesterday by Eilidh Wiseman, the President of the Law Society of Scotland, on the Scottish Government’s report ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe.’ Here for my purpose are the relevant parts:
With all the uncertainty that followed the referendum result, the Scottish Government is to be commended for producing a thorough set of options which deserves proper consideration and analysis … the paper provides an important contribution to the debate on Scotland’s future relationship with our European neighbours. The Scottish Government is also right to use this paper to set out how further devolution to the Scottish Parliament may be required … It is clear the Scottish Parliament may need increased devolved powers affecting justice and home affairs, environment law, farming and research (the full news release is here).
It seems to me that both the content and tone of this statement are inappropriately partisan and political. It accepts the government’s (therefore the SNP’s) position on Brexit and the EU, that – there is a particular sort of uncertainty following the referendum result, the government is to be commended, it’s an important contribution to a debate on Scotland’s relationship with its European neighbours, and further devolution may be required in the areas of justice, home affairs, environment law, farming and research.
All this legal thinking was done with impressive speed.
I can’t find the precise time the first minister launched ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’ at Bute House but the government published its own news release on the event at 12 noon. Of the media that time as well as date news on their web sites, the earliest response I can find is STV’s at 12.07 p.m. The Scotsman managed an online item at 2.10 p.m. I can’t find what time the Law Society published their news release but they tweeted about it at 1.53 p.m.
In the thread underneath their tweet, you’ll find people questioning the lawyers’ news release on precisely the grounds that I do. The Law Society’s response is feeble:
We are a professional body for Scottish solicitors. Lots more info about us here [general link to their web site] … Political decisions affect our members and the public. We have a statutory role to act in interests of both … [We are] not meddling [in politics] but certainly seek to engage across the political parties and offer our expertise where we can.
At which point whoever was running their Twitter account decided to remain silent.
So here are my questions about the Law Society’s response to the government’s proposals.
- Are they, as appears, taking a position on the SNP government’s response to Brexit?
- Is that position, as I and others interpret it, favourable to the government?
- Who had a role in reaching that position as set out in yesterday’s news release – their council, any committee(s), the president or any other elected members, their paid senior officials, or their communications staff? (If the answer is any other than one or two individuals from that list they must have had early sight of the government’s proposals, which would raise interesting questions itself)
- How did they ‘engage across the political parties’ in reaching their position on Scotland and the EU?
- Which of my three expectations of a professional body does the news release meet? If none, what other functions do they see themselves as fulfilling? (Unsubstantiated generalisations about a ‘statutory role’ designed to put off lay people from enquiring further do not answer this question).
I had cause once before to question the credentials of a group called Lawyers for Yes. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that, like them, the Law Society might be an SNP front organisation. But I do question both the judgement they seem to be making on this particular political issue and, indeed, whether they should be making a judgement at all as a professional body.