Legal aid: Defence lawyers boycott domestic abuse cases

Legal aid: Defence lawyers boycott domestic abuse cases

Members of the Scottish Solicitors Bar Association (SSBA) will no longer accept new instructions in summary cases where a contravention of section one of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 is alleged.

Section one of the Act, which introduced a new offence to tackle coercive control, covers abusive behaviour towards a partner or ex-partner.

The action will take effect from 3 May.

The SSBA represents the interests of criminal defence practitioners across Scotland. The overwhelming majority of its members are almost exclusively engaged in legal aid work. 

In a statement it said: “Offences under s.1 of the Act are inherently complex and involve significantly more work than most summary cases. For example, the same fee is payable for a summary case alleging a single punch on a specific date and time as is payable for an allegation under s.1 of the Act which must relate to behaviour over a period of time (which could be years) and which refers to multiple incidents.

“The fees payable for legal aid work are derisory. As a profession, we cannot undertake complex cases for a fixed fee rate which was set decades ago and was never intended to include such complex and lengthy cases.”

It added that while the Scottish government pays lip service to “fairer access to justice”, it has “consistently ignored the profession when we alert them to the numbers leaving legal aid work”.

“They have ignored us when we say that this has a negative impact on the diversity of the profession. They have ignored us when we tell them that we cannot have fair access to justice when newly qualified prosecutors routinely earn upwards of £15,000 per year more than defence solicitors at the same stage. They ignore us when we tell them that the profession is in crisis. The action we are taking is a consequence of the Scottish government’s failure to adequately address these problems.”

In a statement, the Glasgow Bar Association said the domestic abuse cases are “far too complex and lengthy to undertake for a fixed fee” that was set in 1999.

It added: “The government produced this new legislation in 2018 and have funded the Crown and the judiciary significantly in the period since then. The defence has seen very little investment in that time, save for minor fee increases which do little to keep pace with inflation. With the numbers of solicitors leaving the defence bar for more lucrative careers with the Crown, private practice and the judiciary, drastic action is required on the part of the government to resolve this impasse and protect the future of the independent defence bar.

“The GBA recognises that this action will affect complainers in domestic abuse cases. It will also affect accused and mean that they are likely to spend significantly longer on bail than would previously have been the case. However, these cases are now simply not financially viable to take on and we cannot be expected to run businesses for fees which are in real terms around half of what they were in 1999.”

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