I remind members that I am a practising solicitor.
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that, due to legal aid fees agreed in 1999 only increasing by 10 per cent, there is a lack of legal provision across Scotland. (S6T-00914)
I do not recognise the figure that Liam Kerr just used. I wrote to the Criminal Justice Committee in June 2022 setting out in detail the history of fee reforms since devolution. If Liam Kerr has not had a chance to read that letter, I encourage him to do so.
Since 2019, all legal aid fees have been increased by 13.6 per cent and we have offered to the profession a further enhanced package of reforms and increases that are worth £11 million a year, which the Law Society of Scotland has accepted. I hope that boycott action will cease as a result of that further funding.
Officials engage closely with the Scottish Legal Aid Board to keep under review the availability of publicly funded legal services. The Scottish Government also provides funding to law centres as well as to local advice providers. Legal services are also provided through the Civil Legal Assistance Office and the Public Defence Solicitors Office. All those services can operate across a wide geographical area.
I thank the minister for the answer, but it is a completely tone-deaf response that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the profession. Many people have warned for years that legal aid funding is at a level that means that new talent is reluctant to enter the discipline, that partners retire and that solicitors suffer burnout and mental health challenges, as they try to balance one of the most difficult disciplines with appalling compensation. The decline has been going on for years and the Government has done nothing meaningful to arrest it.
I assume that the minister is confirming that she will not increase legal aid to an appropriate level, so what is the Government doing now to increase the number of firms that offer criminal and civil legal aid? Will she provide us with the research that suggests that it will work?
The issues that Liam Kerr raises are important. I am sympathetic to some of them, but we need to engage in the debate in a way that takes account of evidence and engages with the detail and the data.
Scotland is one of the leading jurisdictions in Europe in terms of the scope of legal aid. The Scottish National Party Government has invested in legal aid. In Scotland, more than 70 per cent of citizens are eligible for some form of legal aid. I remind members that that is not the case in England under the Conservatives, where its scope has been drastically cut.
I agree with Liam Kerr that access to justice is a fundamental issue. That is why the Government has listened to the profession. I engage regularly with representatives of the profession and have introduced the latest package of fee reforms, which, as I laid out in my earlier answer, is worth £11 million. It is a credible and substantial offer, which the Law Society of Scotland has accepted. It is, of course, in addition to the 13.6 per cent uplift that is already in place. Therefore, it is not accurate to characterise the Government as not listening or responding to the legal profession’s concerns.
The Government is clearly not responding.
I was interested to hear that the minister is sympathetic only to some of the issues and not, clearly, to all of them. The impact falls on victims of crime, too, because they are involved in cases that are already being delayed by huge court backlogs. That, combined with the fact that 40,000 of the poorest people in Aberdeen do not have direct access to a single legal aid firm, should cause the Government to hang its head in shame at what is happening in some of the most vulnerable areas in our justice system in places such as Scotland’s silver city.
Yesterday, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service responded to the proposed justice budget freeze by suggesting that the current backlog will grow by 2025 and that summary cases in particular might suffer. Does the minister recognise those appalling consequences of her Government’s actions? We did not hear an answer to my first question, so I ask what she is doing right now to ensure adequate access to legal aid firms, in Aberdeen in particular.
I am always working on actions to improve the situation in relation to legal aid provision.
I make it clear to members that the Scottish Government cannot compel private firms or solicitors to provide legal aid services. We provide civil solicitors through the Civil Legal Assistance Office. They have always—I say this in response to the member’s point about geography—covered a wide geographical area and have largely been based in city centres near to the courts.
Currently, we face a challenging public finances environment that is due not least to choices that the UK Government has made and which are, as we know, resulting in a reduced budget in Scotland. [
As I have laid out, it is imperative that we have access to justice, and I have made a commitment in that regard. This Government has made a recent offer of £11 million of funding, which is a substantial amount in the current context in which we find ourselves. [
We also fund law centres, the Public Defence Solicitors Office and, as I mentioned, the Civil Legal Assistance Office. It might be the case that our current model will not be sustainable over the long term. We are looking at substantively reimagining legal aid; work is on-going on that. I hope that the member will support that work as it progresses.
Legal aid budgets were cut by almost half a billion pounds between 2007 and 2019. The Scottish Parliament information centre estimates that the Scottish Government’s framework will mean that, over the next four years, another £12 million of real-terms cuts will be made to legal aid budgets.
The Law Society of Scotland says that the sector is already in crisis. What analysis has the Scottish Government carried out on the impact of cuts to the civil legal aid budget on the most deprived communities? Does the minister accept that access to justice is increasingly available only to the rich?
No—I do not accept that at all.
I have set out some of the actions that this Government has taken, including the 3 per cent overall rise in fees in 2019, which was followed by the 5 per cent overall rise in fees in 2021, another overall rise in fees in 2022 and—as I set out in my previous answer—an additional fee package of £11 million this year on top of the investment that has already been made. That demonstrates that the Government is listening and that it is investing money in both civil and criminal legal aid.
I am always looking at what more I can do. I will give members examples of some of the things that have been done recently. We have provided £9 million of Covid resilience funding, we have put £1 million into traineeships—which the profession raised with me—we have made new payments for holiday courts and we have increased payments for appropriate early resolution. I am constantly working to see what more I can do.
In response to the member’s question about how we will go forward, we have the legal aid payment review panel. The member asked about our analysis. We need the approach to be evidence based: we want to get to a position in which everyone is working together to provide that evidence base. We will endeavour to set increases on that basis in the future.
The minister must be concerned about the impact that her Government’s shocking funding is having on equalities in the profession. Will she highlight for members the percentage split between male and female practitioners generally, and the split in legal aid criminal work specifically? Will she set out in detail what steps her Government is taking right now to address that difference?
I do not have that data in front of me at the moment, but I would be happy to follow that up in writing to Sue Webber.
The member might be aware that I have undertaken a programme of work in equalities in order to encourage more diversity in the profession. I would be happy to follow up with the member on my work in that area, too.