Responding to the Scottish government’s draft budget for 2016-17, announced yesterday, Christine McLintock, president of the Law Society of Scotland said the budget set for legal aid – £126.1 million – is “clearly unrealistic” and risks serious damage to justice in the long term.
Speaking to legal aid practitioners, she said: “The 2016-17 budget allocation for the legal aid fund has been set at £126.1 million, the lowest it has been for well over a decade. This is a reduction from the 2015-16 budget of over 7 per cent (from £136.1 million to £126.1 million).
“Legal aid spending is demand led and not limited by the budget and so we would expect the Scottish government to continue to meet all its obligations in terms of demand for legal aid over the coming year. However, as you are aware, through its savings initiatives, the government tries to reduce expenditure to meet the budget allocation.”
She added that the budget set by the government is lower in cash terms than that set 20 years ago – in 1994/95 the total expenditure on legal assistance was £132.1 million.
The Law Society president also said that in order for the government to reach its target it would need to cut expenditure by £10 million by 2016-17.
She said: “We do not see how this can possibly be achieved without seriously damaging both access to justice and the justice system.
“The government has already made significant savings over the years and already achieves very good value for money in terms of our legal aid system. It has made savings, both in real terms and in cash terms. Further reductions are likely to be damaging to those who need legal help.
“Legal aid delivers a vital service up and down the country to people with legal issues and it can deliver life changing assistance to people in need. It is designed to help individuals on low and modest incomes gain access to legal advice, assistance and representation.
“We also know that investment in legal aid makes good economic sense – spending on legal aid and ensuring people have access to quality advice at an early stage can and does save money in other areas of government spending.”
Ms McLintock said the Law Society had been invited to talks with the government early next year in which they will “argue strongly in favour of investment in legal aid”.
She added: “We will also use our legal aid policy paper which we published last year and sets out a range of constructive suggestions to make the legal aid system simpler and more efficient.
“That is why we do not support the government’s drive to reduce legal aid and will be writing to all political parties about these issues. We will be back in touch with details of how you can help us campaign in advance of the Scottish elections. In the meantime, we would encourage you to contact your MSP as a matter of urgency about this issue.”