Exclusive: Scottish government will not reverse 2011 cuts to legal aid fees
The Scottish government had no intention to reverse cuts to the legal aid budget made in 2011, contrary to claims made by the Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA) that these savings were meant to be temporary, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf stated as he announced an impending consultation with the profession on the simplification of criminal fees.
Writing in response to a letter from Holyrood’s Justice Committee seeking clarification on legal aid and surrounding issues, Mr Yousaf wrote: “Despite intensive investigation, by both Scottish government and SLAB, we can find no evidence of any promise to reverse the cuts made to legal aid fees in 2011.”
He cited then Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill’s letter in October 2011 to the Law Society of Scotland, Faculty of Advocates and the Justice Committee that reforms to legal aid would make savings of £15-16m after 2011/12.
“As we believe there was no commitment to the fee savings in 2011 being temporary the proposals by the EBA around fee levels are not valid. Indeed, the current financial landscape remains challenging as the committee will be aware and it is not affordable to reverse this savings package as has been suggested,” Mr Yousaf wrote.
He stated that the cuts to legal aid expenditure, of 29 per cent, since 2011/12, were a result of “a range of changes in the justice system”.
The Justice Secretary also denied that there are too few criminal solicitors and new entrants to the criminal defence profession, saying their numbers are “only a cause for concern for the delivery of legal aid should the numbers be insufficient to meet demand”.
“SLAB is working with the LSS to establish an accurate picture of the number of trainees involved in criminal practice. At the present time the numbers do not indicate a cause for concern in the future,” he wrote.
Mr Yousaf, who said he welcomed the “opportunity to respond publicly to the particular points” made by the committee and EBA, noted that “while the level of legal aid fees has a part to play in the income levels of solicitors it is only one part of the story”.
The Scottish government will launch a consultation in the coming weeks on proposed changes that aim to eliminate or reduce costly preparation of accounts as well as the need for SLAB to review and re-negotiate solicitors’ accounts; provide faster and more certain payments to solicitors; and reduce the need for detailed time recording in most cases.