Justice and Law Officers – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 14th June 2007.
To ask the Scottish Executive what plans it has to improve access to legal aid in Shetland. (S3O-202)
Access to advice on civil matters will be improved by the development of a network of civil legal assistance offices, which will provide advice on matters of civil law. In the north of Scotland, the network will build on the existing part V project, which is based in Inverness. A new Public Defence Solicitors Office has been opened in Kirkwall, which will provide free legal assistance on criminal matters to eligible individuals in Shetland and Orkney.
Those measures, which were initiated under the previous Administration, are welcome.
Will the cabinet secretary look into the cost to legal practices of actions relating to family matters, such as divorce and child protection cases, that are defended in court hearings? I understand that such cases account for most of the time and dedication of legal practices. Is the cabinet secretary aware that only one legal practice in Lerwick undertakes civil legal aid work? Will he look into that and find out what can be done to assist?
Finally, does the cabinet secretary understand that access to legal aid is an absolute right for many of my constituents but that, as a result of the geography, they find it difficult to access local solicitors, which clearly does not help them? Often, my constituents must travel to Aberdeen or further afield to instruct solicitors and seek advice.
The member is right to raise such a significant problem, which my predecessor as minister with responsibility for justice, Cathy Jamieson, recognised. The matter has arisen partly because of changes in society, in who is joining the legal profession and in how that profession is operating. It is clear that there are issues.
On family issues, it is clear that huge swathes of the community are facing a crisis, which is why the part V project was introduced and why the Government is reviewing civil legal aid payments in family law cases. We are aware of the problem.
There are civil law matters other than matrimonial matters that we must consider. We must examine how assistance is provided and how account can be taken of the difficulties that are faced by remote jurisdictions and jurisdictions that are peripheral to the central belt and the capital city, where legal establishments tend to the based, to ensure that there is parity and equality of service, to which all our citizens are entitled, irrespective of where they reside.