Monday 03 December 2012
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‘PROTEST FOR JUSTICE’ SPREADS BEYOND CENTRAL BELT
Concerns over proposed reforms to criminal legal aid spread beyond the central belt today as solicitors across the northeast, Tayside and Fife joined their colleagues in central Scotland in holding a one-day strike.
A day of action took place in the custody courts at Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy, Falkirk, Alloa, Forfar, Arbroath, Banff and Peterhead.
Defence lawyers boycotted custody courts by refusing to represent new clients, as part of a series of unannounced strikes to be staged across the country, to try to force the Scottish Government to think again over proposals outlined in the Criminal Legal Assistance Bill.
Aberdeen Bar Association president Rosemary O’Neill said the move highlighted the fact that this is a “Scotland-wide issue”.
She said: “We are very sorry to be taking action like this because it is not something we as solicitors would normally do. However, the Scottish Government has so far refused to listen to our concerns.
“This is about contribution levels and access to justice.
“Anyone with a disposable income of £68 per week will have to face the full weight of the state and be forced to pay towards the costs of their defence when they cannot afford to so, which could force people to plead guilty.”
Following a meeting with representatives from law faculties and bar associations from across Scotland, the Law Society of Scotland reiterated solicitors’ concerns over the changes, describing the proposals as “regressive, unworkable, unfair and a risk to our system of justice”.
They believe the plans are regressive because the current threshold of £68 disposable income per week it too low and insist the proposed mixed collection system, which would leave solicitors collecting in summary cases, is impractical and unworkable.
The Law Society also reiterated its belief that the Scottish Legal Aid Board is the body best equipped to collect contributions in all summary and solemn cases.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has offered to discuss the issue with bar associations and will meet representatives on Wednesday of this week.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Strike action by lawyers is unnecessary and impacts the most upon those who least deserve it – the clients. It is regrettable that those striking are willing to jeopardise their clients’ interests, but not their fee entitlement.
“Today’s strike action has had little material impact on the running of the courts. We have been working with the Scottish Court Service, Crown Office and Scottish Legal Aid Board and have together ensured adequate contingency plans are in place.
“It is still a matter of concern, however, that some clients are again appearing in court unrepresented, even though they have had prior conversations with a defence solicitor. This was despite the availability of duty solicitors and public defence solicitors to ensure access to justice was maintained and that no-one needed to appear unrepresented.
“Appearing unrepresented and asking the court to continue the case without plea may be a way of helping to protect the solicitor’s subsequent legal aid fee, but may not be in the best interests of the client.
“Throughout this process we have been happy to meet with the Law Society of Scotland to discuss our proposals around criminal legal aid contributions and last week the Cabinet Secretary for Justice offered to meet with Bar Associations to speak to them face to face. We are pleased that offer has been accepted and Mr MacAskill looks forward to meeting them on Wednesday.
“The strike action that has so far occurred is in nobody’s interests.”