Law Society backs call for urgent reform of legal aid system
The Law Society of Scotland has backed the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s call for urgent reform to address the crisis facing the legal aid system and access to justice as a whole.
The Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) annual report was laid before the Scottish Parliament yesterday and revealed that payments for legal aid work are still 10 per cent below their pre-pandemic level in 2019, despite having increased from £99.1 million to £118.2 million.
The increase in legal aid payments fell significantly short of the demands of the overall picture, with criminal courts operating at around 25 per cent above pre-pandemic capacity as they strive to reduce the backlog of cases.
Commenting on the figures yesterday, the chief executive of SLAB, Colin Lancaster, said the current system is “in urgent need of reform”, including around the level and structure of fees paid to legal aid providers.
The Scottish government in October announced an £11 million uplift to legal aid fees, but the increase is unlikely to be implemented before April 2023.
The Law Society of Scotland’s Criminal Legal Aid Committee convener Ian Moir said: “This increase in legal aid payments doesn’t change the reality, that we have a system in crisis and solicitors are leaving the legal aid system in droves.
“Access to justice is the cornerstone of a fair and just Scottish society, however our network of legal aid support is diminishing, while the demand for help is increasing.
“The Scottish Legal Aid Board are absolutely right to say that the system is in urgent need of reform. Fee levels and structures are just one part of a complex range of factors, but it is clear that fee increases must be implemented now to go some way to stemming the exodus of solicitors willing to do legal aid work.
“Until full transformation of the system is introduced, it’s vital that we implement fee increases to make sure this area is a viable career path so that there are legal aid solicitors left to work and play a part in any future solution.
The Law Society’s Civil Legal Aid convener Pat Thom said: “The Scottish government’s proposed £11 million increase in spend across both criminal and civil legal aid fees for solicitors is a step forwards, but we continue to push for a robust fee review system to ensure the long-term sustainability of the legal aid sector and access to justice.
“We have also called for a review to take place 12 months following implementation to fully assess if the reforms have effectively addressed the crisis in legal aid provision, and identify additional action that may be required.
“We agree with SLAB that work needs to continue to ensure a system that meets the needs of users and those who deliver the services they rely upon. We share SLAB’s call for a constructive dialogue and collaborative approach and will continue to work on behalf of our members to push for change and improvement.”