Scottish Solicitors Bar Association (Court Appointments)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 20 April 2022.

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Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

5. I remind members that I am a practising solicitor.

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Scottish Solicitors Bar Association’s announcement that criminal solicitors will no longer take on court appointments for those accused, without lawyers, who are not allowed to represent themselves. (S6O-00962)

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Regan):

We are, of course, very concerned about the effect of the boycott on court users and on justice partners. Officials met the president and chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland on 13 April to discuss wider issues with legal aid fees, in light of the profession’s call for a further increase of 50 per cent to all legal aid fees.

Although the budget for legal aid cases is demand led, the Scottish Government allocates a budget to the legal aid fund. In 2021-22, that was £138 million, so a 50 per cent uplift would add £69 million per year to the fund, which is unaffordable, given the current pressures on public finances.

I have been informed that the meeting was constructive and that it is hoped that the Law Society will report back on that soon. The Scottish Government will continue engaging with the Scottish Solicitors Bar Association and with the Law Society of Scotland on a package of proposals worth £3.8 million, which was offered to target specific areas of solemn and summary legal aid fees that had previously been raised by the legal profession as being the most pressing of the fee-related issues.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

The action that the SSBA has been forced to take because of Scottish National Party Government neglect will lead to some of those who have been accused of sexual or domestic abuse being unrepresented. That means further trial delays for victims of the most shocking crimes, who may have to wait years for justice. Criminal defence lawyers tell me that, after 15 years of SNP government, the system is collapsing and there has been a fundamental failure to address shortages in their profession. When will the Scottish Government actually start listening to the profession in those meetings that the minister describes? When will it invest properly in legal aid to address the shortages and finally start tackling Scotland’s huge court backlog?

Ash Regan:

I do not accept the member’s characterisation of the situation that we are in. I say to him that I listen to the legal profession regularly and often and that I take great care in listening to all the arguments that are put forward and in trying to address the profession’s issues.

The member raised the issue of capacity in the system. I remind him that the Government recently invested £1 million in the traineeship fund. There was also a 5 per cent rise in legal aid fees in 2021 and a further 5 per cent rise in place from this month, representing a rise of more than £10 million in legal aid fees in the past year alone. The Government is listening to the profession and is continuing to invest.

I am concerned about the current situation and recent developments, and I assure members that my officials and I continue to discuss further fee reforms with representatives of the profession. However, the situation in Scotland, in relation to eligibility levels and the wide scope that remains, is different from the situation in England, where the Conservatives are in charge of the legal aid system. That system has been cut, cut and cut again, so there is a stark difference between the situation in Scotland and the one that Conservatives are presiding over in the rest of the country.