A panel of Scottish lawyers which convened yesterday to debate independence predicted a fee ‘bonanza’ north of the border if Scots vote ‘yes’ in September. 

The public debate, held at a Law Society of Scotland conference on the nation’s constitutional future, also raised the prospect of job losses in the government legal sector in England, when matters presently reserved to the Westminster parliament are repatriated. 

‘Yes’ campaigners calculate that about 490,000 staff are employed in over 230 UK central government organisations. More than 140 of these organisations perform functions for Scotland – functions that would have to be duplicated in an independent country.

Ian Smart, a past president of the Society who wants Scotland to stay in the UK, pointed out that these will range from issuing driving licences, to regulating financial services, to establishing a new broadcasting sector. 

“It will mean piles and piles of work for lawyers [in Scotland],’ he said.

Brandon Malone, a pro-independence partner at cross-border commercial firm McClure Naismith, quoted statistics suggesting that, of the 99m sq ft of office space occupied by government bodies in London, the equivalent of 4m sq ft would need to be transferred to Scotland.

Malone dismissed the widespread view that Scotland risks a corporate exodus. He predicts that the country will attract more company headquarters and international government business when London is no longer perceived as the ‘gateway’ to Scotland. 

‘Fully functioning nation states attract new markets,’ said Malone. ‘Centres of power attract those who want to influence the exercise of power.’

Malone added: ‘You'll remember Bob Dudley, chief executive of BP worrying that independence would cost his company money: he'd have to set up a headquarters in Scotland. Good! Why aren't you headquartered here now? This is where his business is. It's because they want to be near the relevant government: Westminster.'

Malone, chairman of the Scottish Arbitration Centre, established in 2011, believes the centre will not make headway as a global competitor for international dispute resolution work while London remains Scotland’s ‘window to the world’. 

He added: ‘International arbitration is worth £250m to the London economy and we aren’t getting any of that. It’s unreasonable to expect the UK government to promote Scotland ahead of London. But work being done in London is being done at three times the cost (of Scotland).’

Ian Smart voiced fears that an independent Scotland risks reverting to a ‘parochial legal culture’. He is concerned there will not be enough business to justify a separate supreme court, and the ‘intellectual dilution’ it might entail.

He pointed to the beneficial judgments for Scotland of the UK Supreme Court, notably Cadder in 2010, which established that the police practice in Scotland of interviewing suspects without a solicitor present infringed their human rights.  

Pro-union Scottish advocate Fred Mackintosh, of Terra Firma Chambers, also warned delegates what they had to lose. ‘You can’t assume an independent Scotland will be a progressive, liberal nirvana,’ he said, pointing to deep legal aid cuts, and police stop and search rates which are four times higher than in England.

Independence would mean a fee ‘bonanza’ for lawyers in Scotland, he said, as contracts fall to be redrawn and renegotiated. But he warned that clients will pay a hefty price for independence in consequence.

Employment lawyer Carol Fox, a former trade union official who led a court bid last year to block the introduction of tribunal fees, believes independence could foster a more progressive way of working in the solicitors profession. She wants to see more law firms pursue the employee ownership model pioneered by her firm, Fox Solicitors. 

‘It is depressing to see merger after merger of corporate law firms. We need to address the “bigger is better” argument,’ she said.

Fox also suggested that an overhaul of regulation could oblige law firms to meet progressive employment targets.

‘There should be a greater role for the Law Society,’ she suggested, ‘for example intervening in a firm that has not appointed a female partner in a decade. A collective practising certificate could be granted on condition that [progressive employment policies] are in place.’

Note: This story was amended at 14.24 on Friday to expand the quotes attributed to Brandon Malone.