An independent strategic review of legal aid was announced to Parliament on 2 February 2017. The chair of the review, Martyn Evans, reported back to the Scottish ministers in February 2018. In his report, the chair commented on the availability of legal assistance in rural areas and recommended that a new payment model that takes into account geographical difficulties be set up. I am pleased to say that the first meeting of the expert payment advisory panel will be on 15 March 2019. It is vital that key stakeholders work together to make the panel a success. With that in mind, we are implementing a 3 per cent increase in legal aid fees, which will come into effect on 26 April 2019.
The panel’s work will be longer term and some changes will require primary legislation. In the shorter term, we will continue to ensure that individuals who are entitled to it will continue to receive access to justice.
In the event that private criminal solicitors are unavailable, public defence solicitors, who are directly employed by the Scottish Legal Aid Board, are able to assist. In some rural areas, including the Highlands and Islands, civil legal aid offices are able to assist in some types of civil case. We also continue to allow private solicitors to access payments for travelling time to remote or rural areas of the country, if that is required.
One constituent has been unable to find a local agent in the islands or a solicitor on the mainland who is prepared to travel to her location. Solicitors have repeatedly cited her location as the reason for that. As a result, she has been left to represent herself on a matter of family law.
What can be done to ensure that people’s prospects of representation are not determined by where they live?
I am sure that the member will understand that it is not appropriate for me to comment on the specific circumstances of that constituency case without having the details. However, I recognise that a range of factors can impact on someone’s ability to secure legal assistance.
As Alasdair Allan said, there is very limited legal aid provision in the islands, with the result that most people who seek representation now have to look south. Despite what the minister said, SLAB’s reluctance to fund travel means that clients often meet their lawyer only on the day of the court hearing. Therefore, I ask the minister to work with the panel to ensure that the provision of legal aid can be island proofed to ensure that my constituents have access to the legal assistance that they need.
I thank Liam McArthur for raising that issue, which we are taking on board in the review process. With the panel, we want to ensure that we have a legal aid system that is fit for the future and that provides fair and equitable access to justice for people right across Scotland. However, I will take note of the issue that Mr McArthur has raised.