Monday, January 29, 2007

Lawyers protests over low legal aid fees revealed to be fake as Law Society's own research points to increase

More in from A Diary of Injustice in Scotland

The so-called 'strike' by Scotland's legal profession over the alleged lack of payments of legal aid in the Fixed Fees system, seems to have been rubbished by research from the Law Society of Scotland itself, throwing into question the validity of the claims of local Bar Associations of impoverished Solicitors having to boycott everything from family law cases to Criminal cases, .. just to get that wee bit more legal aid into their pockets.

I covered this story back in October, here : Scottish legal profession supports using family law cases to blackmail Executive for more legal aid fees & less reform. and here :
Legal Aid dispute continues to be used by lawyers against planned reforms of legal profession by LPLA Bill

However, today in the Scotsman newspaper, we have the legal profession spinning out an 'unpublished report' - which was actually conducted under their own auspices by Cyrus Tata & Professor Frank Stephens of Manchester University .. showing the Legal Aid reforms announced by the Scottish Executive back in 1999 have failed to stem the rise of legal aid payments to lawyers.

Wait a second though ... didn't lawyers up and down Scotland only a couple of months ago claim they weren't getting enough money .... so they had to strike & boycott legal cases to gain increased legal aid payments ?

Well, as of this morning so far, the Law Society of Scotland haven't joined in the fun with a press release of it's own on the shrill cries of Executive bury's evidence of legal aid reform failure. That in itself, is unusual, as the Law Society usually fire out a Press Release to accompany whatever story they wished published for the next day, unless of course, they don't want it to look as if it's been managed that way .. which incidentally, it does.

So, Cyrus Tata and Frank Stephens report in their findings that when fixed fees were introduced, £30 million was being spent a year on summary legal aid in sheriff courts. Following the introduction of fee-capping, that fell to £27 million. But by 2002, the bill had increased to £32 million with an extra 10,000 cases being funded by legal aid.

How does this square with the recent claims by lawyers they were impoverished and had to strike, boycotting a range of civil law & criminal law cases to gain increases in fixed fees from the Executive - which of course they did - after their strike.

Lawyers even went off to form a new national Bar Association on the pretext the Law Society wasn't up to the job of lobbying for their interests Hundreds to join new lawyers' union - with regard to legal aid payments & the loss of regulating (fiddling) complaints against their colleagues and up & down Scotland, local Bar Associations organised strikes & boycotts of cases, causing even delays to criminal trials of the likes of sex offenders, .. all because lawyers were getting paid more legal aid ?

Well, thanks for clearing that one up, Mr Tata & Mr Stephens. The claims in the strike were obviously bogus. Lawyers were getting more money all the time, & claiming for things they weren't claiming for before .. we never heard anything of that in the legal profession's protests & briefings on the alleged lack of legal aid payments.

This time certainly, I don't think the blame lies with the Scottish Executive at all on the allegations of burying the evidence - this is Law Society sponsored research - that's why it appeared in the Journal of the Law Society - their own publication. Why didn't the Law Society do their usual open press briefings, releases & multiple phone calls to all the newspapers to ensure the story was going in ?

If we want the Executive to publish every little bit of research into the legal profession, maybe we should expect stories appearing on the Executive site like this Daily Record expose on lawyers bribing clients to fill out legal aid forms: BUNG TO RIGHTS .. which is more common than some would have the public believe ..

For that matter, does the Executive have to publish all the Law Society's paid opinions such as the one of FibDem peer Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC who concluded it would be a breach of lawyers human rights to have complaints against lawyers independently regulated so they basically couldn't continue to fiddle client complaints against their colleagues ? ..... I think we don't need to hear propaganda from the legal profession coming straight out of the Executive.

Such a pity the Scotsman didn't put a link in the story to the summary of Tata & Stephen's report published by the Executive on 7th December, rather than that long tedious description of where it lies in some 'sandwiched state'... which is obviously just for effect .. after all .. links to You Tube videos on vandalism in the Capital & reports on everything from health to the McKie case, have made it to the Scotsman website .. why not be a little more consistent .. or is it just because the legal profession says so, this story appears.

With all respect to Kenny MaCaskill & the rest at Holyrood, I wish he was more tuned into the way the legal profession handles the media & stories like this, although it is ironic the 'unpublished' research, which the Law Society actually did publish itself, kills off the legal profession's own protests of lack of legal aid .... How about someone point that one out please ? .. or is it even too much of an effort to state the obvious these days.

I'll be kind and link to the Journal of the Law Society's published version of this 'unpublished research'. See it here : Fixed payments: a real impact?

As for me, well, I like my sandwiches with plenty bacon, or even a salad for that healthy touch.. but I never .. NEVER .. bury my sandwiches between sandwiches !

Article from the Scotsman :

Legal aid cash saving plan is a flop

* Unpublished report shows legal-aid reforms have been unsuccessful
* Lawyers now making claims where previously they would not have
* Executive accused of 'burying bad news' in failure to publish

Key quote
"We are in danger of seeing the Executive covering up and the legal-aid board simply burgeoning as a bureaucracy, not as a service-provider. The whole legal-aid system is in meltdown." - KENNY MACASKILL, SNP

Story in full LEGAL-AID reforms aimed at saving millions of pounds have been a failure and the Scottish Executive has been accused of concealing damning evidence.

The Scotsman has learned that a study completed two years ago - which has yet to be published - found that fixed fees for lawyers have failed to deliver an anticipated £10 million cut in Scotland's legal-aid bill.

The research concludes that fee-capping for summary criminal work, introduced in 1999, may in fact have increased the overall legal-aid bill by encouraging lawyers to submit thousands more claims.

The findings have led to claims of a "meltdown" in the legal-aid system, which last year cost taxpayers £148 million.

And the failure to publish the research has also prompted fresh accusations that ministers and senior civil servants are suppressing information.

A spokesman for the Executive said the research was being held "for a variety of factors", but was unable to explain what these were. However, he said researchers had been given permission to present their findings at conferences and in journals.

He also said that a brief, three-page summary of the report's findings was posted on the Executive's website last month.

Fixed fees of £300 for cases in the district court and £500 for those in the sheriff courts were introduced to cut costs by speeding up the system.

Writing about their research in the latest issue of the Law Society Journal, Cyrus Tata and Frank Stephens, from Strathclyde and Manchester universities, said that prior to fixed fees, lawyers often did not bother to claim for all advice and assistance given, instead only billing for main cases.

But they found that after the fees were introduced, lawyers were far more meticulous in their billing, making up shortfalls from individual cases by submitting more claims.

When fixed fees were introduced, £30 million was being spent a year on summary legal aid in sheriff courts. Following the introduction of fee-capping, that fell to £27 million. But by 2002, the bill had increased to £32 million with an extra 10,000 cases being funded by legal aid.

Kenny MacAskill, the SNP's justice spokesman, said the Executive's failure to release the report was "utterly unacceptable".

He added: "We are in danger of seeing the Executive covering up and the legal-aid board simply burgeoning as a bureaucracy, not as a service-provider. The whole legal-aid system is in meltdown."

Margaret Mitchell, the Scots Tories' justice spokeswoman, accused the Executive of "burying bad news".

"They have sat on this report for 18 months, putting a sledgehammer through their claims that this would be an open, accountable and transparent government."

A spokesman for the Executive said allowing researchers to present their findings "demonstrates our willingness to have the findings in the public domain". He added: "We are hoping to publish the full report very soon."


A SUMMARY of Cyrus Tata's and Frank Stephens' findings was posted on the Scottish Executive website on 7 December.

The paper boils down to three short pages, 14 months of research, involving analysis of legal-aid board data over five years and scores of interviews with solicitors.

No press release was issued to announce the release of the long-awaited findings, which have been kept under wraps for nearly two years. The document was instead posted among hundreds of other papers in the website's "publications" section, which can be entered by clicking on a link on the home page.

It can be found sandwiched between the chief fire and rescue service inspector's annual report, and a justice department circular on "the implementation of the integrated case management process from 1 June, 2006".

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