Call for reform as legal aid spend rises 14 per cent
New legislation is needed to ensure Scotland’s legal aid system remains modern, responsive and targeted, the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) has said as new figures show costs rose by 14 per cent to £135 million in 2022/23.
The rise in expenditure, revealed in SLAB’s latest annual report, was driven by the increase in cases paid combined with the impact of successive five per cent increases in fee rates implemented in April 2021 and April 2022.
The number of civil legal aid cases paid increased by nine per cent, summary criminal legal aid by 15 per cent and solemn criminal legal aid by 13 per cent, a clear indicator of the work being done to reduce pandemic-related backlogs across the justice system.
SLAB said the legal aid system had continued to provide much-needed and often life-changing support to thousands of people across Scotland despite all that the last few years had thrown at it – but reform was key to ensuring it fulfilled its potential.
Colin Lancaster, SLAB chief executive, said: “It would be truly remarkable if a system designed over 70 years ago was able to respond effectively to the range of problems we see today or encompass what we have learned about patterns of need, user focus, and trauma-informed joined up models of service delivery.
“That kind of change needs new primary legislation, and I am hopeful that will be forthcoming soon.”
One of the challenges to be addressed in any redesign in the legal aid system is ensuring it remains a sustainable commercial prospect for private sector providers, he said.
However, he also highlighted evidence brought to Holyrood’s criminal justice committee this year about the history of fee negotiations, the clear links between trends in crime, court business, legal aid expenditure and the numbers of solicitors conducting legal aid work, and the challenges in recruitment and retention reported by the legal profession.
“This type of evidence does not get enough exposure, and without it the important debate about what is actually a very complex and nuanced series of interconnected issues – many of which also affect the wider legal profession and indeed other sectors altogether – can be over-simplified,” said Mr Lancaster.
“Important though it undoubtedly is, remuneration is not the only issue worthy of attention, and nor is it the root cause of or solution to every other issue.”