Legal Aid video highlights importance of funding access to justice

Christine McLintock

The Law Society of Scotland has launched a new video to highlight the importance of legal aid in ensuring access to justice for all.

Research carried out by Ipsos Mori for the Law Society has shown there is strong public support for legal aid, with 81 per cent of the public agreeing legal aid is a price worth paying to ensure a fair society, regardless of its cost.

A recent survey of the legal profession also showed that 78 per cent of solicitors surveyed believed Scottish Government policy on legal aid risked undermining access to justice for the poorest in society, with 77 per cent backing an increase in legal aid rates.

Christine McLintock, president of the Law Society of Scotland said: “We recognise that like all public sector funding, the justice budget is under significant pressure. However legal aid funding is quite simply the cost of access to justice for those in need.

“Access to justice is an essential element of a fair and democratic society and we have highlighted it as one of one of our key priorities for this year’s Scottish election. Providing access to quality legal advice and representation for people, regardless of their financial means, helps tackle inequality, encourages early resolution of problems, and protects fundamental rights.

“While our legal aid system is designed to meet costs on a case-by-case basis, there are fees for particular types of work which were set in 1992 and have not been revised.

“The legal aid budget was reduced from £161.4m in 2010/2011 to £138m in 2014/15. The target budget for 2016/17 is £126.4m – more than a £10 million reduction – and is less in cash terms than 20 years ago which, accounting for inflation, represents around a 50 per cent cut in real terms over those two decades.

“This is causing enormous challenges – already there are areas of the country where there are not enough solicitors providing civil legal aid to meet demand, because practitioners just can’t afford to take it on.”

The Law Society set out a number of recommendations for reform in its paper ‘Legal Assistance in Scotland: Fit for the 21st Century’.

These included developing models to encourage resolution of cases, and in doing so generate significant savings – less court, prosecution, witness and defence resources are required for cases that conclude at an early stage.

Other recommendations involve using new technology, from electronic disclosure in criminal cases, to wider use of videoconferencing, and development of a new case management portal for civil courts.

Ms McLintock said: “Technology can be a great help, but many vulnerable groups will either not have access to such technology or the skills to use it. They should not be deprived of access to legal advice.

“We know that early intervention can help prevent homelessness, family separation, damage to future employability, community disruption, healthcare costs and other demands on public services.

“The legal aid budget cannot continue to be squeezed. If those providing legal advice and assistance are not fairly remunerated there is a serious risk that firms will not be able to afford to take on the work and that new entrants to the legal profession will not see a viable future in this vital line of work.

“There are important discussions to be had on how we can deliver better legal services to communities and how this should be funded.”

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