Scottish Government proposals to reform legal aid risk undermining public access to justice and may fail to deliver their required savings, the Law Society of Scotland has warned.
The Scottish Government has today (Wednesday, October 5) published a series of reforms to legal aid aimed at delivering the required savings as a result of the comprehensive spending review. Of greatest concern to the Society are proposals to introduce a new system of contracting of firms in criminal cases, a change which had a stormy introduction in England and Wales.
Other changes included in the reforms package include the introduction of contributions in criminal cases, video conferencing in prisons and police stations and more use of insurance and no win/no fee instead of legal aid.
Cameron Ritchie, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “Much of the Scottish Government’s proposed reforms seem sensible in principle but as always, the devil will be in the detail and we will need to look carefully at how any changes will work in practice.
“The proposed introduction of contributions in criminal legal aid cases sounds fair in principle – people should make a contribution if they can afford to. However, we would be concerned if solicitors were required to become government debt collectors by having to collect the contribution from clients.
We also need to consider what would happen if someone is acquitted – does that person have their contribution paid back? Would the Crown be liable for expenses?
“Of greatest concern are the proposals for contracting. The introduction of contracting in legal aid work in England and Wales created problems of access to justice for those people who needed it most and put at risk the quality of service provided. Contracting is a hugely significant change for the Scottish legal aid system and it may be questionable whether the challenges in introducing such a change are necessary given the relatively moderate saving it is expected to produce.
“Other changes on civil legal aid also raise issues particularly whether instructing solicitors should be present in court or not and on travel costs for certain types of work. We will be asking the profession for its views on all the government proposals.
“We recognise that the legal aid budget, like all government budgets, will be affected by the reductions in public expenditure. However, we need to strike the right balance that protects the interests of the public and solicitors, who are essential to make any system of legal aid work successfully. This will be our focus as we engage with the profession and government over the coming months.”
The Society is writing to criminal and civil legal aid solicitors today (Wednesday) and will hold a meeting with faculties of solicitors.
Meetings are also planned with the Scottish Government on both civil and criminal legal aid.
The Society is responding to the Justice Committee’s consultation on the legal aid cuts announced last month as part of the Government’s comprehensive spending review.
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