Lawyers asked to advise on future of legal aid
Academics, advocates and solicitors to advise on approach to reviewing legal aid fees.
Experts from across the legal profession have joined a Scottish government panel to advise on an evidence-based approach for a review of fee levels for legal aid services.
The panel has been established in response to recommendations set out in Martyn Evans’ independent review of legal aid.
The panel will include academics and members of the Faculty of Advocates, the Society of Solicitor Advocates, the Law Society and the Scottish Legal Aid Board. The panel will meet for the first time on 15 March.
Community safety minister Ash Denham said: “A legal aid service that is effective and user-focused is key to assisting some of the most vulnerable in our society. We have already taken steps to demonstrate our commitment to those delivering this vital service, including a 3 per cent uplift in fees across the board for legal aid lawyers, which will take effect next month.
“The creation of our expert panel is an important step towards modernising the system to ensure that it is fair to both the taxpayer and the provider, and is sustainable for the future.
“Despite significant financial pressures, Scotland’s legal aid system is one of the leading jurisdictions in Europe in terms of scope, eligibility and cost, with three-quarters of people eligible for some form of civil legal aid assistance. This contrasts with the position in England and Wales, where only around 25 per cent are eligible, and where legal aid scope for many areas of civil law such as family, housing and immigration have been cut.”
Christine McLintock, convener of the Law Society’s Public Policy Committee, said: “The sustainability of legal aid fees is a significant concern for access to justice and for the viability of the sector. We raised issues around fees to the independent legal aid review, around the lack of any periodic review, the impact of cuts, real-terms reduction through inflation and challenges for particular areas of work, such as police station advice. Establishing a framework panel to consider these issues is a positive step.
“It is vital that the voice of practitioners is clearly heard by the government, the Scottish Legal Aid Board and everyone with an interest in shaping the future of legal aid. With Ian Moir and Mark Thorley joining the panel, conveners of our criminal and our civil legal aid teams respectively, we can be sure the experience of practitioners and the challenges for access to justice will be highlighted. Ian and Mark will continue to actively engage with practitioners on the issue and will welcome views from our members throughout the process.
“Ongoing periodic review is vital to ensure the sustainability of fees to maintain availability of legal advice for those who need it and encourage new entrants to the sector. There are models for periodic review across the justice system already, from judicial expenses to sheriff officers’ fees, and there are examples of best practice in legal aid systems internationally that we can learn from.
“The legal aid system in Scotland is complex and in need of simplification and we hope that the panel can move swiftly to develop an effective, straightforward, accountable and fair process.”