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Lawyer of the month: Hamish Lean

There is a cold wind blowing around many of our farm gates. With around 80% of Scotland’s land devoted to agricultural production and the agri-food sector now being the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, farmers and producers are now facing new threats to their livelihoods that are no different. from those of any other company in the country.

While NFU Scotland spoke of the “financial, physical and political challenges our industry faces at every turn”, Hamish Lean is someone uniquely qualified to advise on these challenges.

One of the North East’s leaders in rural law, Mr Lean is a partner at Shepherd and Wedderburn in Aberdeen and heads the firm’s rural property team where he specializes in agricultural tenancy work.

He has been accredited by the Law Society of Scotland as a specialist in agricultural law since 2020, sits on the Rural Affairs Committee of the Law Society of Scotland and the Legal and Technical Committee of the NFU.

As a partner in a leading law firm, he is perhaps particularly well entrenched in the rural sector. “I was born and raised in Highland Perthshire, where my father was a shepherd – and I have two younger brothers who are both shepherds in the Highland Perthshire Estates,” he says.

It was an interest in campaigning and a keen expertise that saw him, after graduating from the University of Edinburgh, rise through the ranks at companies such as Thorntons, Blackadders and Stronachs before joining Shepherd and Wedderburn in 2017.

His skill was underpinned earlier in his career by experience as a street practitioner in Forfar and Dundee. “Although there are particularities in rural businesses, they are mostly relatively small family businesses, which all face the same type of problems,” he says.

“And I am somewhat concerned that many young people are not following the career paths of those of us who have been street practitioners, then specialist and then joined big firms such as Shepherd and Wedderburn.

“Increasingly, they tend to go straight to larger firms, where they only spend four or six months in various areas before being directed to particular areas of law, which means they can miss the same breadth of experience. ”

Mr. Lean’s breadth of expertise also led him to be a visiting lecturer in farm law at the University of Aberdeen for a time, as well as contributing an ongoing monthly column to the press and to the newspaper on topics ranging from estate planning to health and safety in rural land management to the pitfalls arising from regulatory changes regarding the use of red diesel.

This plurality of interests is not limited to the legal arena either. As well as being an avid cyclist and reader (mostly history) and with five now adult children, Mr Lean enjoys evenings with his wife Lorraine at the movies – while happily admitting that since his teens he has enjoyed s sit behind a battery.

Although not currently in a band, he has played at events such as the Belladrum Festival near Beauly – which, although not quite Glastonbury, must be a refreshing source of after-school relief for manage the intricate details of conflict resolution within the agricultural industry.

This is not, of course, to minimize this particular area of ​​law. “In Scotland, the legal framework governing tenancies can be a bit of a minefield, with all sorts of issues likely to end up in the Scottish Land Court,” he says.

“Landlords and tenants can have a fallout with ownership of the farm, repair issues or fixed equipment,” he says, adding that a secure tenant now has the right to serve notice on the landlord giving them the option to acquire the lease subject to the payment of compensation – and if the owner does not wish to exercise this option, the tenant can sell the lease, as a secure lease, to a new entrant or a growing farmer.

This is a complex area and one in which Mr. Lean has become well known for his expertise. In fact, according to Chambers 2023 UK Guide, he is “a leader in farm hire work…and his knowledge is among the best in the country”.

One of the main reforms of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, he believes, was the introduction of the office of the Tenant Farm Commissioner, currently Bob McIntosh. “The commissioner has done a lot of work behind the scenes in sometimes quite difficult situations – and I think his appointment is one of the successes of the 2016 law.

“He launched a guide to alternative dispute mediation and started a program to help landlords and tenants get funds to access it. I’ve seen successfully resolve some very problematic disputes where it seemed like the only other way to go was through land court,” says Mr. Lean, who firmly believes that “a quiet word” is often a way out. much better than legal action. .

Other contemporary issues he has recently addressed include the contentious issue of public access rights to farmland during the Covid pandemic and the dilemma of Scottish farmers being outbid by the logging industry as, in the race for net zero carbon, investors are increasingly turning to this. sector – as well as peatland restoration and rewilding projects.

“These lands have suddenly become very valuable, with the pressure on hill farming businesses to sell and cash in, which means that the social fabric of life, especially in the mountain areas, is increasingly under pressure,” he said.

“This creates tension between landlords who see it as better to plant trees or sell the land to commercial exploitation and either don’t renew secure traditional leases or end them – and if we find the right balance I’ I am not sure.

Not quite a rural idyll then, but representing the kind of challenges Mr. Lean is well placed to advise on after years of developing lasting relationships with clients in the agricultural sector.

And although recently constrained by Covid restrictions, he says one of the most satisfying parts of his job is walking around the farm and sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, chatting customer business.

In the future, he would see a steady influx of new lawyers who are interested in what he describes as a rewarding and intellectually challenging area of ​​practice.

He concludes with a caveat: “I very much hope that this area of ​​law will remain attractive and if I have one concern it is that among young lawyers, too much specialization too early may not be in the best interest of the profession. ”