Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Scottish Government should return to first principles to be fair to consumers in reforming the law of prescription in Scotland

Govan Law Centre (GLC) has argued that the Scottish Government's reform of the law of prescription - the date that obligations are extinguished in law - should go back to first principles. GLC's Principal Solicitor set out our position yesterday before the Scottish Parliament's Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, which is leading the Stage 1 inquiry on the Prescription (Scotland) Bill.  The evidence session is available to watch on YouTube.

The Scottish Government's aim - and the starting point of the Scottish Law Commission original Discussion Paper thinking - was to create clarity, simplicity, certainty and fairness in the law on prescription.  GLC believes that this should mean all legal obligations are subject to a five year prescriptive period as a matter of principle. The current law, contained in the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973, is almost half a century old and the justification for requiring 20 years to pursue debts and obligations is outdated with today's standards and technology.

While the Scottish Law Commission originally envisaged Scots law being simplified so that all statutory obligations would be subject to the five year 'quinquennium', the Bill makes a number of exceptions to this rule for tax generally, national insurance, council tax, child maintenance and reserved social security benefits. These exceptions result in a 20 year prescriptive period.

GLC notes that public policy arguments have been accepted for differential treatment, but we still believe that the five-year prescriptive period should apply to all statutory obligations.  For example, there is no justification for council tax to be subject to a six year prescriptive period in England but 20 years in Scotland.

If the Scottish Government is not willing to amend the Bill, GLC has encouraged the Parliament's Committee to do so, which failing to consider a fall back compromise position.  For example, the Bill’s current exceptions could be subject to five years, and an extended period of 10 years in the following exceptional circumstances:

  • Where there has been willful, false or misleading information by the debtor which has resulted in a material delay in enforcing the debt due, or
  • The creditor can prove that the delay in enforcing the obligation was not due to a material delay on its part, and it would be in the public interest to allow an extended period.

As a matter of public policy, we can see why there may be a case for individual exceptions, but they should be genuinely exceptional, otherwise what the Bill will fail in its goal of providing “certainty, clarity and fairness”, by allowing debts and obligations to linger for 20 years without being pursued as early as possible.

In relation to social security benefits, we believe there is no justification for not having all devolved and reserved benefits subject to the five year prescriptive period.  It is inequitable that people have a month to appeal a benefit decision, while the DWP would have 20 years to pursue reserved benefit debts.

GLC believes that the “appropriate date” for the start date of the running of the five year prescriptive period for consumer debts in terms of section 6 of the 1973 Act should start from the last payment made.  This current law is set out in section 6 and schedule 2 of the 1973 Act and depends on whether the contract makes provision for when repayment is due, which failing when a written demand for repayment is made.

We have a number of cases in court at present where old consumer credit debts have been sold by banks to debt collection companies, and we think the starting point for prescription for consumer debts should be simplified as the last payment made by the consumer.  The alternative is the current position of highly technical arguments where the creditor can argue that a later start date applies, for example, when it demands full repayment – which can add an extra year or more to the quinquennium.

GLC fully supports section 5 of the Bill which amends section 11 of the 1973 Act, and introduces a new "discoverability test'. Section 5 of the Bill would address the 2014 UKSC decision in Morrison & Co Ltd v. ICL Plastics Ltd, which established that the start date for prescription was when a pursuer knew they had suffered loss, injury or damage. This can result in unfairness when no-one knew who was culpable until some years later.

Section 5 of the Bill would require additional knowledge in relation to the fault/negligence and identity of a defender before the prescriptive period can begin in a damages claim.  We believe this represents practical common sense, and is a fair and reasonable approach.

GLC argued that section 8 of the Bill should be deleted.  There is no cogent case to change the law on when the 20 year prescriptive period begins. At present the period runs from the date of a pursuer's knowledge of a defender’s act or omission, however the Bill would run the period purely from the actual date of the act or omission.  We have no difficulty with section 6 of the Bill in relation to removing interruptions to the 20 year prescriptive period.

We have significant concerns over section 13 of the Bill, which would permit contracting out of the five prescriptive period by one year with a 'standstill agreement'. Very often consumers in financial difficulty are in a weak and vulnerable position, and may not seek independent advice until the last moment, so we believe this provision could result in serious injustice in practice.  We suggested a possible compromise that section 13 of the Bill should only engage where there is certification from a solicitor or accredited money advisor (in debt cases) that the consumer has taken independent legal advice and agrees to extend the five year prescriptive period.

Mike Dailly was giving evidence on behalf of GLC, along with Mike Holmyard of Citizens Advice Scotland. The Committee's Stage 1 inquiry on the Bill is ongoing, with the Minister scheduled to appear before the Committee next week.  
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Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Recruitment: Govan Law Centre seeks qualified solicitors to join our Glasgow legal team

Govan Law Centre (GLC) seeks qualified solicitors to join our Glasgow legal team. We are seeking solicitors with civil court/tribunal experience.  We offer the opportunity to develop your legal career, undertake contentious/novel litigation, and utlise innovative client solutions as we expand our legal services across Glasgow and Scotland.

Experience in the fields of housing, homelessness, and public law would be an advantage. These are full time posts, however, job sharing will be considered. These positions will be based in our Govan HQ, and will include provision of a variety of legal advice and representation for clients in terms of mainly housing, mortgage arrears and homelessness.  It will also involve providing legal representation at court.

The successful candidates must:
  • Hold a degree in Scots Law
  • A diploma in legal practice
  • An unrestricted Law Society of Scotland practising certificate
  • Have good research and analytical skills
  • Ability to work well under supervision
It would be desirable if the candidates had:
  • Knowledge and experience of issues relating to social welfare law
  • Experience in appearing in court or tribunal settings
  • Experience in dealing with vulnerable clients
  • Experience in handling a large and varied workload
  • Experience in working within a team setting
Please send a CV and covering letter explaining why you are interested in this position to: Candy Walker, Service Manager, Govan Law Centre, 18-20 Orkney Street, Glasgow, G51 2BX or by e-mail to cwalker@govanlc.com. CLOSING DATE: FRIDAY 27THAPRIL 2018 AT 12 NOON.  Any applications received after the closing date will not be considered.

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Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Scots lawyers should face ethics action over shell firm abuse

Here, Govan Law Centre's Principal Solicitor, Mike Dailly, argues that much more must be done to tackle the misuse of Scottish Limited Partnerships as shell firms in Scotland.  See also today's (Tuesday, 10 April 2018) news story in The Herald, "Scots lawyers should face ethics action over shell firm abuse".

When the Panama Papers scandal broke two years ago, few would have thought such murkiness would wash up on the shores of Scotland.  The use and abuse of shell companies to facilitate massive tax evasion, money laundering and organised crime didn’t happen here.  Or so we thought. 

A na├»ve belief that Scotland was somehow beyond the shady world of global finance and international crime has been shattered by good investigative journalism from The Herald, confirming that we are not so different to Panama.  The reality is that no country in the world is immune from international crime.  But that doesn’t mean to say we should make it easy for fraudsters.

While Scottish Limited Partnerships (SLPs) have been a respected and legitimate business model for over a century, this vehicle has now been car-jacked by those with something to hide.  In the four years before 2016, the number of SLPs registered in Scotland increased by 237%, while those registered elsewhere in the UK increased by 43%.  16,461 new SLPs were registered at just 10 addresses in Scotland.  Something was happening.

The attraction of SLPs is a combination of their secrecy and separate legal persona in law.  Unlike in England, a SLP is a legal entity in its own right that can enter into contracts, own and control assets.  As a partnership it is ‘tax transparent’ so only the partners are taxed as individuals, and no accounts need be filed with Companies House.  Until last year, the owners of a SLP were entitled to secrecy.  In short, it was the perfect partner to a shell company in Panama City.

Responding to growing concern over the abuse of SLPs for criminal activity, the UK Government introduced new transparency regulations last June requiring SLPs to disclose the identity of “people with significant influence or control” (PSCs) over them.  Companies House maintains a register of PSCs, and it was thought that removing the secrecy of SLPs would dissuade those with unlawful intentions.  However, many partners of SLPs routinely flout these new regulations.  

We must do much more to tackle this problem in Scotland.  While SLPs and company law is generally reserved to Westminster, the regulation of Scotland’s professions isn’t.  Why should Scottish solicitors, accountants and others act for SLPs who flout the law?  Simply explaining that the responsibility for compliance with transparency regulations rests with the SLP isn’t good enough.  This should be a matter of professional conduct and ethics.

For example, it isn’t in the public interest for Scottish solicitors to continue to provide services and/or host SLPs who ignore transparency regulations.  There is a very real risk that continuing to act for SLPs with something to hide will damage the public interest and reputation of the legal profession in Scotland. 

There is nothing to prevent the Law Society of Scotland introducing a professional conduct rule to prohibit a Scottish solicitor from acting for a SLP who fails to demonstrate compliance with the transparency regulations.  It should be a matter of professional ethics.  The power to do so exists under section 34 of the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980. 

Scottish law firms could be required to declare the number of SLPs they act for on a six monthly basis, and give a declaration they are satisfied the SLP has complied with the transparency rules. The professional regulatory bodies for accountants and other professionals could easily do likewise using conduct rule making powers. 

No professional in Scotland should act for a SLP flouting the 2017 transparency regulations.  To do so should give rise to professional misconduct.  If regulatory bodies in Scotland are unwilling to do more to combat the misuse of SLPs then there is nothing to stop the Scottish Parliament from legislating.  Govan Law Centre offers its support to MSPs in framing an appropriate member’s bill, if so required. 

* This commentary first appeared in The Herald.

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Saturday, 27 January 2018

Govanhill Law Centre persuades local authority to treble rate of pay for overnight care workers

Govanhill Law Centre has been successful in persuading a local authority in Scotland to almost treble its rate of pay for overnight "sleepover care".  A self-directed care funding package had made provision for £3.51 per hour gross pay for overnight care workers - £3.03 per hour net.  That figure has now been revised to £9.38 per hour in a disabled person's care package. The funding package had previously made no provision for the cost of paying the National Minimum Wage (NMW) to carers providing overnight care. 

The requirement to pay the NMW is a statutory right is set out in the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, as amended, and the National Minimum Wage Regulations 2015. The NMW from April 2017 was £7.50 per hour (£8.54 gross), for those aged 25 and over. It will be £7.83 per hour net from April 2018. 

The local authority's position was that funding for overnight care was being considered nationally by local authorities in discussion with the Scottish Government. In dismissing the client's complaint pursued by Govanhill Law Centre's senior solicitor Laura Simpson, the council argued that "it would not be fair or equitable to increase funding to your client alone". 

A petition for judicial review was drafted in-house by Govan Law Centre's Principal Solicitor to challenge the local authority's decision in the Court of Session in relation to the relevant law.  The petition sought reduction of the local authority's decision as ultra vires and illegal. However, the local authority chose to review and increase its rate of pay above the NMW rate while the petition was sisted at the Court of Session pending determination of a full civil legal application.

The petitioner's position was that overnight carers were entitled to the NMW having regard to Whittlestone v. BJP Home Support Limited [2014] I.C.R 275, and J Esparon t/a Middle West Residential Care Home v. Slavikovska [2014] I.C.R. 1037.; and Wright v Scottbridge Construction Ltd 2003 SC 520, where the Inner House of the Court of Session held that for the purpose of Regulation 3 of the National Minimum Wage Regulations 1999 where an employee was contractually required to be at a work throughout a shift, the entire period of the shift was “time work” for the purpose of Regulation 3.


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Friday, 1 December 2017

Blog: The Rome I Regulation & Scottish consumer contracts

Here our Principal Solicitor, Mike Dailly, blogs on whether an English law governing clause can oust Scots law rights in consumer contracts in Scotland.

It is not uncommon for consumer contracts to contain a clause stipulating what law will apply to the agreement in the event of a legal dispute. These are known as governing law clauses.  But what happens if you live in Scotland – which has its own distinctive Roman law based legal system and jurisdiction - but your contract has a clause saying it is “governed by the law of England”?

For example you are ordinarily resident (domiciled) in Scotland but your credit card, loan agreement, or bank account says it is governed by the law of England?  This may seem academic for two obvious reasons. First, the Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments Act 1982 prevents a UK business raising court proceedings in England against a consumer domiciled in Scotland for consumer disputes. Second, most of modern consumer protection and financial services law is UK law (much of which derives from the implementation of EU Directives), so does it really matter if a consumer contract in Scotland has an English law governing clause?

Actually, yes it does matter. In short, because there are many historical and substantive differences in contract and debt law between England and Scotland. Moreover, these areas of law are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and such distinctions have increased since 1999. To take but one example, from a court action I am currently dealing with at Govan Law Centre.

It is commonplace for international and domestic companies to purchase defaulting UK consumer credit debts from banks, and regulated credit card and loan providers. The purchaser buys the debt at a heavily discounted price, in exchange for assuming all of the risk in recovering some or all of the debt.

In my example case, a debt recovery company (“DRC”) bought a debt from MBNA (the bank that stood behind the Virgin credit card). The last payment from the consumer was in June 2012. The DRC buys the debt, and instruct Scottish solicitors who raise and intimate sheriff court proceedings in September this year.  The last acknowledgment of the debt was over 5 years ago, and as section 6 of the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973 creates a 5-year time bar for recovering such debts, you might think, the DRC is too late here. The court proceedings are incompetent, as the debt has prescribed under Scots law.

However, the consumer credit agreement contains an English governing law clause, and debts do not generally prescribe in English law for six years. Thus the DRC’s lawyers reasonably argue that as English law applies to this contract, the debt hasn’t prescribed in law. But does English law apply to a consumer contract where the consumer is habitually resident and domiciled in Scotland?

I think the answer may require an international paper chase, which goes something like this. The defender is a consumer and the credit agreement was a consumer contract for the purpose of the “Rome I Regulation”, Regulation (EC) No. 593/2008. Article 6 of the Rome I Regulation, provides as follows:

Article 6

Consumer contracts

1. Without prejudice to Articles 5 and 7, a contract concluded by a natural person for a purpose which can be regarded as being outside his trade or profession (the consumer) with another person acting in the exercise of his trade or profession (the professional) shall be governed by the law of the country where the consumer has his habitual residence, provided that the professional:

(a) pursues his commercial or professional activities in the country where the consumer has his habitual residence, or
(b) by any means, directs such activities to that country or to several countries including that country, 

and the contract falls within the scope of such activities.

2. Notwithstanding paragraph 1, the parties may choose the law applicable to a contract which fulfils the requirements of paragraph 1, in accordance with Article 3. Such a choice may not, however, have the result of depriving the consumer of the protection afforded to him by provisions that cannot be derogated from by agreement by virtue of the law which, in the absence of choice, would have been applicable on the basis of paragraph 1".

While Article 22 of the Rome I Regulation does not oblige EU member states to apply Rome I to conflicts between the different laws of countries within a member state, it leaves this option open. And the UK and Scottish Parliament applies Rome I to internal UK governing law conflicts.  Regulation 4 of  The Law Applicable to Contractual Obligations (Scotland) Regulations 2009 (SSI 2009/410) extends the application of the Rome I Regulation (with the exception of Article 7 (insurance contracts) with are dealt with separately) to conflicts solely between the laws of Scotland, England and Wales and Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. Regulation 4 provides: 

4.  Conflicts falling within Article 22(2) of Regulation (EC) No. 593/2008

Notwithstanding Article 22(2) of Regulation (EC) No.593/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the law applicable to contractual obligations (Rome I), that Regulation shall, with the exception of Article 7 (insurance contracts)1 , apply in the case of conflicts between— (a) the laws of different parts of the United Kingdom, or (b) the laws of one or more parts of the United Kingdom and Gibraltar, as it applies in the case of conflicts between the laws of other countries”.

We have more paper chasing because the effect of Regulation4 is to apply the Rome I Regulation to conflicts between different parts of the UK in contractual obligation cases. Thus a credit card agreement can choose - with the consent of the consumer by signing it - English law. The Rome I Regulation is then engaged. And on the face of it, section 23A of the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973, requires the Scottish courts to respect that choice for prescription issues.

However, section 23A(4) disapplies section 23A where Rome I is engaged, as would occur in our example case where English law is chosen to govern a Scottish consumer contract. However, the journey does not end there, because as we have seen Article 6.2 of Rome I prevents a consumer from losing statutory protections in their country of habitual residence which they would have enjoyed had the business not chosen a different law. So if a defender is a consumer who had their habitual residence in Scotland when the contract was concluded, English law can be chosen.

However, the Scottish consumer would still be entitled to enjoy the five year time period under the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973. A consumer protection that exists in Scotland is preserved by virtue of Article 6.2 of Rome I. All of which would mean the DPC can't rely on an English law six year time bar period for pursuing a debt in a Scottish consumer contract.  As this point looks set to be debated at Glasgow Sheriff Court, hopefully an answer to this interesting paper chase will be available shortly.

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