Legal Aid

– in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd June 2022.

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Photo of Foysol Choudhury Foysol Choudhury Labour

5. To ask the Scottish Government how it will ensure fair access to justice in light of its recent resource spending review reportedly freezing legal aid spending for the next five years. (S6O-01256)

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Regan):

The legal aid fund is not frozen. The legal aid budget in Scotland is demand led and all those who meet the eligibility criteria will have access to legal aid. We will continue to work with justice organisations to develop and co-ordinate their delivery plans in response to the high-level spending review allocations, including public bodies such as the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

In this financial year, we have increased the legal aid budget by £13.9 million, which is an increase of 10 per cent, and we have also made an investment of £1 million over two years in the future of the legal profession. We are working in partnership with the Law Society of Scotland to deliver a new legal aid traineeship scheme, which is the first of its kind in Scotland.

Photo of Foysol Choudhury Foysol Choudhury Labour

The impact of the announcement of a budget freeze will paralyse the justice system, which is already struggling. The weight of the court backlog from the Covid period is already harming access to justice and this will only threaten any recovery.

In recent months, people across the Lothian region have been caught up in a mixture of court backlogs and industrial action from the legal profession in protest at frozen pay. There is delayed justice and strike action, and people across Scotland are stuck without access to legal representation. Is this the reality of the Scottish Government’s new vision for justice?

Ash Regan:

I do not agree with the member’s assessment. The spending review sets out high-level multiyear spending parameters; it is not a budget. The annual budget will continue to be set through the normal parliamentary budgeting process.

The member mentioned the backlog. The Government has invested substantial amounts of funding into reducing the backlog.

In terms of legal aid practitioners, in addition to the increase in the legal aid budget this year, we have recently also offered a 7.5 per cent uplift in criminal fees and a 5 per cent uplift in civil fees. That has been rejected by the profession. However, we will endeavour to continue those negotiations in order to find an affordable solution.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

We can all agree that fair access to justice is vitally important, so I welcome the £13.9 million investment that the minister has outlined. How does the legal aid system in Scotland compare to other jurisdictions in Europe on scope, access and eligibility?

Ash Regan:

An independent review of legal aid, which was published in 2018, found that Scotland had a generous legal aid system by international standards, and that it had wide scope and no cash limit. Despite significant financial pressures, Scotland is one of the leading jurisdictions in Europe for its legal aid system in terms of scope, eligibility and costs: 75 per cent of people are financially eligible for some form of civil legal aid assistance, which contrasts with England and Wales, where only 25 per cent of people are eligible for that assistance. In England and Wales, there have been cuts to scope that have left many areas of civil law, such as family, housing and immigration, largely out of scope.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

The minister will have seen Lyndsey Barber’s powerful video setting out why she is leaving the criminal defence system. She says that the system is at breaking point. Has the minister done an assessment of the impact on victims if the system breaks?

Ash Regan:

Since 2019, the Scottish Government has increased legal aid fees by 8 per cent, and another 5 per cent was committed earlier this year. That was not a one-off payment: it is a year-on-year commitment of 13 per cent. Of course, that must be set against the current backdrop of difficult public finances. That demonstrates that the Government values legal aid practitioners, and that we are investing in that system. I will give the chamber my assurance that the cabinet secretary and I will continue to engage with representatives of the profession in order to try to find a sustainable way forward.