Scotland’s criminal legal aid system could be on the verge of collapse as solicitors working for the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) say they are unprepared for the deluge of calls from suspects requiring legal advice – as guaranteed by legislation due to come into force.
On 25 January, new laws will entitle anyone who faces police questioning to legal advice, regardless of whether they have been charged or not.
However, hundreds of solicitors have withdrawn from SLAB’s police station duty scheme over sustained cuts to the legal aid budget, which they say will leave them unable to deal with the heavier workload brought on by the legislation.
And, compounding the problem, SLAB solicitors have said they too lack capacity to handle the work.
A source told The Herald: “In short, [SLAB] are not prepared for solicitors leaving the police station duty plan and do not have the capacity to deal with the problems that will arise should they do so.”
The issue is further exacerbated by an ongoing employment dispute with contact line staff at SLAB, who are employed on zero-hours contracts.
A SLAB spokesman said: “We previously offered a guaranteed-hours contract to the contact line team but they also wanted a more wide-ranging look at their terms of contract,.
“It wasn’t possible to finalise the negotiations until we completed a review of the service to take account of the impact the upcoming changes to police station advice would have on the contact line.”
The Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA), which unanimously voted to withdraw from the scheme last month, has repeated its criticism of the current arrangement.
EBA president Leanne McQuillan said: “It remains our position that we cannot responsibly advise our members to undertake to service the police station duty scheme as we simply do not have the resources to do so.
“In little over a year, 10 per cent of our members engaged in criminal defence practice have left the field altogether. They have predominantly been female solicitors with many of those having young families. It is our belief that the impact of the measures which will be implemented on January 25 will impact most acutely on that demographic.”
Meanwhile, solicitors’ groups around Scotland including in Aberdeen, the Borders, Dunfermline, Falkirk and Moray have also withdrawn, with Dundee expected to do the same this week.
The Glasgow Bar Association (GBA) has yet to decide whether to vote on removing itself from the scheme.
GBA president Ron Mackenna said, however, that its members would not give a month’s notice to SLAB, but would withdraw immediately if they vote to leave.