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5 reasons why today’s vote won’t matter to the legal profession because Scottish lawyers already do things so very differently

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There’s going to be some sort of democratic bonanza in a place made famous by an American-Australian actor in a Hollywood epic — but as far as the Scottish legal profession is concerned, it’s already independent

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Regardless of how the Scots vote — and let’s face it, who among us doesn’t wish they would get on with finally sorting out this issue? — the plebiscite is meaningless to the nuts and bolts of legal practice on either side of the border. That’s because as far as the law and the legal profession are concerned, the Scots have already ploughed their own furrow.

That existing independence applies from the study to the practice of law. Here’s a handy Legal Cheek guide to the independent legal profession of Scotland.

1. Education and training

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Is the qualification process more difficult or not? To English ears, it just sounds confusing — but a damn sight cheaper.

Website Study in Scotland tells us that to train and qualify as an advocate (that’s what they call barristers) or solicitor in Scotland, undergraduates must do a four-year law degree at a Scottish university (sounds like protectionism), while post-grads can take an accelerated two-year course.

Then students need to bag a Diploma in Legal Practice (PgDip) (which is similar to the Legal Practice Course (LPC) in England and Wales), but then — regardless of whether they fancy being a solicitor or barrister — everyone has to jump into the law firm training contract market.

Ultimately, those still keen on becoming barristers must gen up for another round of exams — this time imposed by the Faculty of Advocates – before finally being authorised to hunt for a pupillage, which, like the Irish, the Scots charmingly refer to as “devilling”. While pupillage at English chambers runs for a full year, Scottish devilling lasts only nine months.

But the biggest difference is the cost. There are no tuition fees in Scotland (provided you are Scottish) and fees for the legal profession vocational course are much cheaper.

The Law Society of Scotland tells us that currently the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh are the dearest, charging £6,500, while the University of Glasgow comes in at £6,350, Dundee University is 50 quid cheaper still, Strathclyde University’s fee is £6,000, while Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen provides the best value with a fee of £5,500.

The current LPC fee at the University of Law’s Moorgate branch in London is an eye-watering £14,765, which, of course, comes on top of £9,000 a year in first-degree tuition fees.

2. Structure of the bar

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While law firms on both sides of the border look pretty similar, the advocacy profession has some core differences.

The bar is tiny in Scotland, populated by only 460 lawyers in total, 120 of which are silks. Chambers are called “stables”, providing that side of the profession with a curious equine ambiance. There are only nine, with most focusing almost exclusively on civil or criminal work.

As with barristers in England, Scottish advocates have rights of audience in all courts and tribunals. Higher court solicitor-advocates also exist in Scotland, but they haven’t been as pushy as their English counterparts in relation to court dress.

While Scottish barristers kit themselves out in similar gowns and wigs to those in England, solicitor-advocates wear only a gown, not being allowed to slip into a spot of the old horsehair.

3. Courts

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A minefield of unfamiliar names awaits Englishmen travelling north in this category. Justice of the Peace Courts effectively consist of lay magistrates hearing low-grade criminal matters.

Sherriff Courts sound as though they should have something of the Wild West about them. But instead these six courts hear more serious criminal cases as well as some civil law matters.

The High Court of Justiciary is Scotland’s supreme criminal court, while the Court of Session is the country’s supreme civil court.

Above all that lot is the five-year-old Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, on which currently sit two Scottish judges, Lords Reed and Hodge. But presumably if their countrymen vote to cut the apron strings, those two chaps will be booking overnight sleeper trains from King’s Cross.

4. Criminal court procedure

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Ever since the dawn of the union, English lawyers have been fascinated by the Scottish criminal trial verdict of “not proven” (which the locals insist on pronouncing with a long “o” — charming if you’re Scottish, but really irritating if the English try to replicate.)

Regardless of pronunciation, not proven verdicts tend to land defendants in a grey area of not being acquitted, but likewise not required to pack a toothbrush for a stay at Her Maj’s pleasure.

Scottish juries run to 15 rather than the 12 sitting on English trials. Also, while those accused of certain criminal offences in England are given the civilised choice of appearing before a judge alone or taking their chances before a jury of their peers, Scottish defendants have to take what they are given.

And the whole prosecution shooting match north of the border is run by the Procurator Fiscal, which is a fancy-pants way of saying Director of Public Prosecutions.

5. The Scots have Richard Susskind

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Whether that is a good or bad thing depends on where you stand on the Paisley-born, perma-tanned lawyer’s bid to become the guru of legal technology.

The author of such riveting holiday reading as “Tomorrow’s Lawyers” and “The End of Lawyers?” as built a successful career by putting the wind up the legal profession — and not by any means just in Scotland, but around the Anglo-Saxon world.

In a nutshell, his thesis is that sometime soon, most lawyers will be replaced by computers and robots, and the only way to survive that life-changing event will be to follow the advice in his books (retailing at anywhere between a tenner and 15 quid in paperback, but who knows how much they will cost or in what currency they will be priced if the “Yes” side wins).

Susskind did a law degree at Glasgow University and then a PhD in law at Balliol College, Oxford. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of the British Computer Society, and was awarded an OBE in the millennium New Year’s Honours List for services to IT in the law and to the administration of justice.

But ironically, arguably one of Scotland’s most famous lawyers will not be getting a vote today. First Minister Alex Salmond disenfranchised him and every other Scot living in England. According to Susskind’s website, the legal profession soothsayer beds down in Radlett in leafy Hampshire.