Law Society: Urgent investment is needed to secure long term future for legal aid in Scotland

The Law Society of Scotland has called for increased investment, less bureaucracy and better use of technology to ensure the long-term sustainability of legal aid.

The Law Society has set out a series of recommendations in its comprehensive submission to an independent review of legal aid in Scotland, saying that the current system is overly complex and bureaucratic, while decades of under-investment have led to a decline in access to justice for people in communities across Scotland.

Among its proposals are:

  • Increased funding and a rise in legal aid rates
  • An urgent review of funding for police station work
  • A restructure of criminal legal aid funding and a streamlined payment system
  • Simplification of civil legal aid and adoption of a single grant system
  • Simplification of children’s legal aid to help applicants
  • Increased scope of legal aid work carried out by trainee solicitors
  • Research into the preventive benefits of legal aid

Law Society of Scotland president, Graham Matthews, said: “We know that early resolution of legal problems can prevent much bigger issues further down the line, before they get more difficult and more expensive to resolve. Unfortunately, under the current system solicitors are finding it increasingly difficult to afford to take on legal aid clients, particularly in civil cases, and run a viable business – with those who do take on legal aid clients effectively unpaid for some of the work they carry out. The result is that it’s becoming increasing difficult for people to access the legal support and advice that they need, especially in rural communities.”

The society also believes that savings brought about by increased efficiency in the legal aid system and better use of technology, should be reinvested into the legal aid system to help ensure its long term sustainability.

Ian Moir, co-convener of the Law Society of Scotland’s legal aid committee, said: “Less is spent on legal aid now than two decades ago, with the 2016-17 budget set at £127 million compared to £132 million in 1994-95, while costs of running a business have risen. In addition some of the criminal legal aid rates paid to solicitors haven’t increased in 25 years, with certain civil rates unchanged for 17 years. This is simply not sustainable and we see an increasing gap between those who can afford legal assistance to resolve a problem and those who can’t, something we believe should be unacceptable in Scotland today.”

Co-convener Mark Thorley added: “We have set out a positive case for change in our submission. Our recommendations would help to streamline the system and make the most of what technology can offer to generate savings which can then be re-invested to ensure the long term future for legal aid. These changes will allow solicitors to run viable businesses offering a range of legal services and help those most in need.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Legal Aid Board said that a process of fee reform was “already underway” and that this “will address some of the issues the society have raised in their evidence to the independent review of legal aid”.

They added: “As part of that we will be meeting with solicitors and the society on proposals for significant changes to summary and solemn criminal legal aid fee structures.

“We are also arranging a series of meetings with solicitors and bar associations in July and August to help us prepare a revised version of the draft Criminal Code of Practice.

“We share some of the society’s concerns about the complexity of the legal aid system. This is due to the different demands that are put on it and the need to satisfy the tests set down by the Scottish Parliament.”