Law Society calls for ‘evidence-based review’ to ensure sustainability of legal aid

Alison Atack
Alison Atack

The Law Society of Scotland has called for an “evidence-based review system” to ensure the sustainable future of the Scottish legal aid system.

Alison Atack, president of the Law Society, said it is “essential that we have a legal aid system that ensures people across Scotland can access the legal advice they need, regardless of their financial situation or status in society, to resolve their legal issues, and that solicitors are fairly paid for the work they do in our communities across the country”.

Ms Atack’s intervention follows new figures from the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) which revealed an eight per cent decline in Scottish spending on legal aid to a total of £124.4 million last year.

The Scottish government recently announced a three per cent increase in legal aid fees across the board, but lawyers are concerned that this isn’t enough to secure a sustainable future for legal aid.

Ms Atack said: “The commitment to a three per fee increase across the board as an interim measure is a step in the right direction while the longer-term future of the system is considered. However, this short-term rise cannot be seen as a long-term solution as it will not solve the problems we see in the system. We need to see the implementation of a new evidence-based review system as an urgent priority to ensure the future sustainability of legal aid.

“Having a widespread, diverse legal aid profession is important to allow individuals across Scotland to have access to a choice of local, independent experts to assist them at difficult times in their lives. Our legal aid system should support a range of different service providers to maintain the judicare system that best serves access to justice and the rule of law in Scotland.”

SLAB figures show there were nearly 8,000 fewer applications received for criminal legal assistance last year compared with the previous 12 months.

However, Ms Atack said: “While case volumes may be going down overall, we have seen an increase in more complex cases which require more work, including domestic abuse and historic sexual abuse cases. The administrative burden also continues to increase for solicitors taking on legal aid work, including changing court procedures or requirements that the legal aid system does not always keep up with. This means much work carried out by solicitors on legal aid funded cases remains unpaid.”

She concluded: “What is needed is for us all to work together on simplification of the legal aid system so that it effectively remunerates those solicitors undertaking legal aid work by providing faster and more certain payment, while reducing the administrative burden and facilitating early resolution of civil and criminal cases. We will continue to engage positively with the Scottish Government, the Scottish Legal Aid Board and other stakeholders to bring forward reforms to ensure Scotland’s legal system works for and is accessible to all those who depend on it.”