Scottish solicitors have been urged to form a united front to fight a looming threat to legal aid budgets – because any cuts will have a hugely damaging effect on access to justice.
New Westminster Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has indicated that the legal aid budget for England and Wales is in his sights when he looks to identify cuts – although it has been frozen for the last six years and the Coalition Agreement states that a “fundamental review” of Legal Aid is planned.
In Scotland, while the legal aid system is not subject to Westminster control, it is certain to come under massive scrutiny, according to Andrew Alexander, the Law Society of Scotland’s Legal Aid co-ordinator.
Mr Alexander said it was time to fight to protect both criminal and civil legal aid now – rather than waiting for cuts to happen. Civil legal aid in particular had already been “cut to the bone”, he added.
“The freezing of the English legal aid budget for six years has amounted to almost a 20 per cent cut in real terms,” Mr Alexander said. “The pressure to deliver justice to a fixed budget has placed the justice system in England and Wales under extreme pressure – and solicitors are being paid later and later.”
The Legal Services Commission (LSC) delayed some payments to legal aid practitioners until April and its new financial year. Also, the LSC is now routinely delaying payments to solicitors, and the Law Society in England and Wales has needed to advise banks of the consequent cashflow problems for legal firms.
The attempt to drive down costs at the LSC has led to tendering proposals for criminal work that would see around 500 firms receive contracts for criminal work in England and Wales: the remainder of the 1,700 criminal firms south of the border would, from 2011, leave the market.”
“Whether these tendering proposals go ahead under the new Government, it is clear that cuts to the Legal Aid system in England and Wales are likely to be severe,” said Mr Alexander. “In Scotland, the Law Society will strongly defend the interests of solicitors in criminal and civil Legal Aid practice, just as these practitioners strongly defend some of the most vulnerable in society at the most vulnerable stages of their lives.
“It is vital that the profession is united in facing this challenge: not just Legal Aid practitioners but also solicitors working at Law Centres and at voluntary organisations, bodies which rely on public funds to provide assistance to the public.
“We could find ourselves in a double dip recession and the Society will fight any cuts toe-to-toe.”
Mr Alexander said reforms to speed up justice and reduce costs had to continue: the Society's criminal negotiating team had substantial input to the summary justice reform process, and are now active in monitoring and evaluating its progress. He stressed that these recent reforms had delivered bigger savings than predicted and that work would go on to encourage early pleas to save money and time.
He warned that civil justice was under particular threat: “We need to say enough is enough and work to protect all areas – but civil justice, in particular, is in danger.”
The Law Society of Scotland has recently met with Lord Bach, former Legal Aid Minister for England and Wales; with Helen Edwards, current Director General at the Ministry of Justice in London; with its counterparts at the Law Society of England and Wales; and will shortly be visited by Ministry of Justice officials from New Zealand. In fighting for access to justice in Scotland, learning lessons from other jurisdictions will be vital.
“Legal Aid was intended as the fourth pillar of the welfare state,” Mr Alexander concludes. “It remains vitally important that people who are unable to afford representation have that paid by the state. This is a concept that is intuitive – 68% of people in a recent YouGov survey agreed with this principle – and one which the Society will strive to maintain.”
26 May 2010