Mixed response to Scottish government’s £20 million legal aid package

Mixed response to Scottish government’s £20 million legal aid package

Humza Yousaf

The Scottish government’s announcement that legal aid solicitors will benefit from a 10 per cent uplift in legal aid fees and access to a £9 million fund to help those experiencing hardship as a result of Covid-19 has received a cautious response.

Following meetings with the Law Society of Scotland, the Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf confirmed a package of further support made up of:

  • a 10 per cent uplift in fees to be delivered over the next two financial years
  • a resilience fund of up to £9 million of grants available to support legal aid solicitors and Law Centres who have had a loss of legal aid income due to Covid and
  • reform of fees for criminal summary and solemn business including an enhanced fee for appropriate guilty pleas in solemn cases

Alongside the existing offer of up to £1 million to fund up to 40 trainees in legal aid firms, the total package of Scottish government support for the legal aid sector will be up to £20 million.

Mr Yousaf said: “Scotland’s legal profession has worked hard since the Covid-19 outbreak to help maintain access to justice services so I’m pleased to be able to confirm this significant additional support for the sector.

“The Scottish government has worked closely with the profession from the outset of the pandemic and we have had constructive meetings with the Law Society to discuss the support available to them, helping us to identify ways we can offer further support.

“This significant package of support will offer grants to legal aid providers to help address financial hardship faced by some in the sector as a result of the pandemic and will continue to provide additional support over the coming years as the justice system responds to the impact of Covid-19. Despite the constraints of more than a decade of UK austerity, the package includes the biggest overall uplift in legal aid fees over that period.

“This investment also recognises the important contribution that legal aid makes towards tackling inequalities across Scotland. Legal aid helps often vulnerable people to deal with a range of issues, such as housing, debt, mental health and family breakdown, as well as providing a defence against criminal charges. In supporting the rule of law is upheld and that individual rights are protected, legal aid provision benefits all in our society.”

Amanda Millar, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “This proposal is a positive response from the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to our representations over many months, and years, about support for the legal aid sector. I am pleased that he has recognised our point that this is not simply an issue caused by the pandemic.

“The 10 per cent across the board uplift in fees over the next two financial years is a start towards addressing three decades of underinvestment, but it is only the start. I look forward to receiving more details about the criteria for the Covid Resilience Fund to reach those legal aid practitioners who have been hardest hit by the pandemic.”

Solicitor advocate Robert More, of More and Co, however, was more sceptical about the announcement. 

He told SLN: “I do not share the optimism which has been expressed in some quarters about this announcement. At its most basic, this ‘package’ will do absolutely nothing to attract the young solicitors which the profession so badly needs, or alleviate the plight of those who have dutifully attended at court every day of the pandemic to ensure the criminal justice system does not grind to a complete halt.

“I am especially suspicious of the announcement of the loftily-named Covid Resilience Fund. Based on a provisional reading of the Justice Secretary’s letter, my prediction is that almost no one will qualify for the scheme and – if that is correct – it is not a ‘fund’ at all.

“If it does unravel in that way, it will represent an act of the utmost political bad faith on the part of the Scottish government, for which the legal aid sector will never forgive it.”

He added: “I hope that I am wrong.”

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