Comparison between years is not straightforward, as a range of factors influences the demand for and level of legal aid. Anyone eligible who requires legal aid will receive it, as it is a demand-led system—we do not ration access to legal aid on the basis of available budget. Indeed, in every year since 2012-13, actual spend on the legal aid fund has exceeded the budget that was set for that year.
A slowdown in court business has resulted in a decrease in criminal expenditure. That is part of a longer-term trend in which criminal proceedings have reduced in number from 179,500 in 1994 to 122,000 in 2013-14.
We plan to work with the Law Society of Scotland and the Scottish Legal Aid Board to review legal aid provision, to understand the factors that influence the need for legal aid and to discuss how best to achieve a simpler and more efficient legal aid system that better manages expenditure while protecting access to justice—something that has not been protected in England and Wales.
In addition, through the justice board, we are taking the necessary steps to speed up access to justice within sheriff courts, and the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service has confirmed that trial diets are now being made available across courts in line with optimum timescales.
The minister will be aware of the concerns that have been raised by the members of the Falkirk and District Faculty of Solicitors. Under the new sheriff appeal court arrangement, those judges who preside at hearings, the other court officials, police officers and lawyers for the prosecution will receive 2015 rates of pay, while those in court who are standing up for the appellant will receive only 1992 rates of pay. Does he agree that that situation is unacceptable? In his response to me dated 4 November 2015, he stated that he is
“committed to reviewing legal aid arrangements to find a sustainable and appropriate fee structure”.
When does he expect that review to take place?
On the latter point, I have just outlined in my original answer the work that we are doing with the Law Society and the Scottish Legal Aid Board. Indeed, I had an internal meeting in the Scottish Government today to discuss how we take that work forward.
On the first point on fee rates, it is worth pointing out to the chamber that there have been significant changes to legal aid fees for summary criminal work in the past decade. For example, in 2008 the payment for guilty pleas under assistance by way of representation funding was increased from £70 in the sheriff court; it is currently £485. Statutory provisions on rates across legal aid have been subject to multiple revisions over the years. For example, the broad structure of the current fixed-payment regime for summary criminal work was put in place in 1999—not 1992—and has been subsequently been amended.
Focusing solely on the perceived profitability of individual elements gives an incomplete picture, because total payment for legal aid work is considered in the round. However, I recognise that there are concerns in the sector. I am happy to continue to listen to the member and others who bring forward such points. I am happy to engage with Siobhan McMahon as the review is undertaken.