SLAB’s annual report for 2014-2015 published

SLAB's annual report for 2014-2015 published

The total cost to the taxpayer of legal assistance in Scotland was £138.6 million in 2014-15, a decrease of 8 per cent compared to the previous year according to the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s (SLAB)annual report, published today .

This £11.9m decrease is partly due to changes in the flow of criminal cases through the justice system in 2014-15.

However, 2014-15 also saw falling applications and grants of summary criminal and civil legal assistance, offset partly by a slight increase in solemn criminal legal aid and continued growth in children’s legal assistance.

The news comes as the president of the Law Society of Scotland, Christine McLintock, said yesterday that the Scottish government’s 2016-17 budget allocation for the legal aid fund, which has been set at £126.1m, is “clearly unrealistic” and risks serious damage to justice in the long term.

Colin Lancaster, chief executive of SLAB (pictured above), said: “Publicly funded legal assistance helps people to resolve the problems they encounter in day to day life by pursuing or defending their rights and as such it makes a vital contribution to tackling inequalities in Scotland.

“The fall in expenditure in 2014-15 is not a signal that the financial challenges are over or that the legal aid system doesn’t need further reform and streamlining.

“The impact of the UK Spending Review means that significant further changes are needed to meet the Scottish government’s budget allocation for legal aid. While the legal aid fund is demand led, and no-one who is eligible will be refused legal aid, expenditure savings will need to be found.

“Access to justice can only be maintained in the face of these financial challenges by working collaboratively with those interested in protecting the vulnerable through a legal aid system that is broad in scope and encourages a strategic approach to meeting needs. I look forward to doing so over the coming months.”

Iain A Robertson CBE, chairman of SLAB, said: “Although we have seen the general demand for legal assistance fall again in 2014-15, the funds available to manage public finances are also falling. The need to reduce expenditure on legal aid has not gone away, and will increase.

“We will work collaboratively with others in the justice sector to deliver improvements that will enable further reductions in legal aid expenditure, including by streamlining the legal aid system where possible.

“It is imperative that discussions on reforms are approached strategically and in the context of the justice system as a whole, to protect the best interests of those in need of support from the legal aid system. Otherwise Scotland risks its proud record on maintaining access to justice.”

James Wolffe QC, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, said: “Access to justice is fundamental to a fair society governed by the rule of law. Skilled legal advice and representation for all who need it is essential if access to justice is to be meaningful. Scotland has a proud history in that regard.

“The chairman of the board is right to observe that observers outside Scotland look with envy and respect at our efforts here to deal with the challenge of tight public finances without the reduction in the scope of legal aid or deep cuts in eligibility for civil legal aid that have been seen elsewhere.”

Key points of the 2014-15 annual report:

  • Total expenditure on the Legal Aid Fund in 2014-15 fell by 8 per cent to £138.6 million compared to the previous year. The 2013-14 figure was £150.5 million.
  • SLAB assessed 212,000 applications for legal aid and paid 241,000 accounts of solicitors and counsel.
  • SLAB managed three grant funding programmes, which enabled support for 108 projects around Scotland. The projects helped nearly 27,000 new clients. SLAB grant funding also contributed to a new Scottish Women’s Rights Centre which helps women experiencing gender based violence.
  • SLAB processed all application and account types within its headline performance indicators.
  • SLAB reduced the average number of working days it takes to process civil legal aid applications by six working days. It also reduced the average number of working days to making a payment on an account by six working days.
  • Expenditure on criminal legal assistance fell by 10 per cent compared to the previous year, from £94.0 million to £85.0 million.
  • Net expenditure on civil legal assistance was £43.9 million, a fall of 8 per cent compared to the previous year from £47.7m. There has been a fall in the take-up of advice and representation in civil matters.
  • Children’s legal assistance (legal aid and ABWOR) cost £5.2 million, an increase of 7 per cent compared to the previous year, from £4.9 million.
  • Gross expenditure on grant funded projects was £6.3 million which increased from £5.5 million as a result of the Scottish Government and Money Advice Service providing extra funding for an extended programme.
  • Payments to solicitors totalled £107.7 million, advocates £11.9 million and solicitor advocates £3.0 million.
  • Payments on outlays (e.g. expert witnesses and court reports) fell by 8 per cent compared to the previous year, from £19.5 million to £17.9 million.
  • Grants of all types of criminal legal assistance have fallen compared to the previous year, apart from a small rise of 1.2 per cent in grants of solemn criminal legal aid. This reflects a longer term trend of declining summary court business.
  • Grants of civil legal assistance have fallen by 9.5 per cent compared to the previous year. Demand has fallen due to the easing of pressures stemming from the economic situation. The largest volume year-on-year falls were in cases with subject matters of contact, separation and divorce. All these areas have been steadily declining for the past few years.
  • Legal aid grants in relation to intervention orders and guardianship orders under Part 6 of the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000 now represent the largest category of legal aid certificates issued at 28 per cent of all grants. Grants of this nature rose 19 per cent in 2014-15 compared to the previous year.
  • Grants of children’s legal assistance continue to be affected by the changes that came into force on 24 June 2013 that extended the scope and availability of legal assistance for children’s hearings. It is still too early to establish a proper comparison in volumes between years.
  • The annual report, including additional documents and tables of earnings for the profession, are available on our website.
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