Scottish government neglect of legal aid causing collapse of system

Scottish government neglect of legal aid causing collapse of system

Stuart Murray

The number of criminal legal aid solicitors dropped from 1,459 in 2007 to 966, the Scottish Solicitors Bar Association (SSBA) has said as it warned the system was heading for collapse.

The Scottish government’s public spend on legal aid has declined by 45 per cent, allowing for inflation, over the past 10 years.

Over the same period, government spending on the Crown Office rose by 70 per cent.

The average criminal summary fee per case has increased by only £113 from £621 in 2006/07 to £744 in 2023, The Herald reports.

If the fee had matched the Consumer Price Index definition of inflation it would now be at £1,003.

Solemn fees have gone from £1,822 to £2,150 over the same period. Had they kept pace with inflation they would stand at £2,945.

Writing to Justice Secretary Angela Constance, Stuart Murray, president of the SSBA, said he wanted to alert her to the “impending collapse of the criminal justice system in Scotland”.

“One of the cornerstones of any democratic system is the right of access to justice. In order to exercise that right, an accused person requires access to an experienced criminal solicitor. Scotland has a rich history of maintaining that fundamental right for accused persons. Unfortunately, those rights now seem destined to become a thing of the past.

“To suggest that the criminal defence bar is in danger of collapsing is gross understatement. The profession is collapsing and the financial burden of continuing to operate law firms under the current political regime is more than most can bear.

“A cornerstone of any working justice system is the right to a fair trial. We are now approaching a tipping point in Scotland where many accused persons, as a direct result of a lack of investment by the Scottish government, can no longer access justice. We now live in a jurisdiction where the government funds the state run prosecution and withhold funding from the criminal defence profession.”

A Scottish government spokesman said: “The Legal Aid Fund is demand-led and directly linked to application numbers. We recognise the important role of legal aid providers which is we have provided significant additional funding and increases in remuneration, investing £31 million in legal aid since 2021, despite the clear and significant constraints on our finances from the UK government settlement. The most recent increase in April resulting in an £11 million package of legal aid reforms – a 10.25 per cent increase.

“We are however aware of the concerns… the minister for victims and community safety established, and co-chairs—along with the chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland and the dean of the Faculty of Advocates, the Future of the Legal Profession Working Group. This group will examine the evidence and identify measures that we can collectively take to address recruitment and retention in relation to criminal defence.”

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