Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Lawyers argue not enough legal aid as legal aid budget soars to £150m million

While some in the profession argue they will have to leave legal aid work, others are definitely rubbing their hands as the Herald reports that Scotland's legal aid payouts are at record levels.

Grab it while you can everyone, reforms may well be on the way, but don't forget, you can't argue everyone has access to justice when everyone doesn't have access to legal aid ...

The Herald reports :

Scotland’s legal aid bill soars to £150m

JULIA HORTON October 02 2007

Scotland's legal aid bill has risen to more than £150m after a surge in expensive criminal cases, a new report revealed yesterday.

The annual report from the Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab) found that the total cost to the taxpayer of providing legal aid to help people on low incomes access the courts was £150.2m last year - the second-highest level ever.

Most of the rising cost was caused by more and more expensive, criminal prosecutions leading to record numbers of criminal legal aid grants, pushing the criminal aid bill up by 3% to £106.6m.

The highest-paid advocate for the second year running was the renowned defence counsel Donald Findlay, QC, who received £358,400 in legal aid payments.

In the list of the top-earning solicitors' firms, Glasgow-based Ross Harper Solicitors held on to the number one spot from last year, bringing in just over £1.7m.

Legal aid for civil cases also rose for the first time in three years, costing the public purse £39m while a further £4.5m went on children's legal assistance and contempt of court proceedings.

However, the number of solicitors' firms taking on legal aid work continued to fall, down 8% to 676 for civil legal assistance and down 4% to 599 for criminal assistance work. Donald Findlay said there was still widespread dismay at the gap between what legal aid work involves and what lawyers are paid to carry it out.

He said: "I'm the same as everyone else. I spend hours and hours doing the work, I always have done and that is my choice but I can understand why people are not taking on legal aid cases and as fewer people are doing it standards will drop. There is a lot of disillusion in the profession about this.

"Everyone thinks that figure legal aid payment is what you are actually earning but 17.5% goes straight for VAT for a start. There is a big difference between the turnover of a business and what the profit of the business is."

Cameron Fyfe, partner at Ross Harper Solicitors, said the only reason the firm can make legal aid work viable is by "subsidising" cases with private client work.

He called for "dramatic" increases in both the fees paid to lawyers for legal aid work and also in the financial eligibility for clients.

He added: "If you earn more than about £10,000 or £12,000 you don't qualify for legal aid but if you are on £20,000 and you have a family how could you possibly afford a court action costing tens of thousands of pounds?"

Last week a survey by the Law Society of Scotland found that nine out of 10 law firms currently offering civil legal aid work were to discontinue the service within four years because the current system of block fees did not reflect the true costs involved.

Yesterday's Slab report coincided with new proposals from the board and the Scottish Government aimed at improving pay to solicitors for criminal legal aid work.

However, critics remained concerned over the future of legal aid and the people it is supposed to help.

Oliver Adair, convener of the Law Society of Scotland's Legal Aid (Solicitors) Committee, said increased detection rates and prosecutions had led to an increase in the legal aid budget.

He said: "Legal aid is essential for a vulnerable group of people who might not otherwise be able to have access to legal advice and representation. The importance of that should never be threatened by cost-cutting or inefficiencies in the system.

"It is clear from last week's research that there is a serious funding problem which is causing access to justice issues and this needs to be addressed urgently.

"The society will continue to highlight issues around access to justice with the Scottish Legal Aid Board and the Scottish Government to ensure solicitors continue to offer this service in both criminal and civil work in the long term."

Slab chairman Iain Robertson agreed and said further work by the board and the government was needed.

"We have listened carefully to the many voices who are increasingly concerned about the number of solicitor firms actively providing civil legal assistance, which continues to decline. We remain concerned that there may be underlying access to justice issues which remain to be addressed."

Top earners
Top 10 legal aid payments to advocates 2006/7 (2005/6)
# 1 (1) Donald Findlay, QC, £358, 400
# 2 (4) Ian Duguid, QC, £321,600
# 3 (48) Edgar Prais, QC, £272,500
# 4 (27) Mhairi Richards, QC, £269,800
# 5 (16) Paul McBride, QC, £237,800
# 6 (2) Gordon Jackson, QC, £228,500
# 7 (19) Derek Ogg, QC, £213,300
# 8 (25) Lorenzo Alonzi £213,100
# 9 (11) Ronaldo Renucci £212,100
# 10 (17) Thomas Ross £208,600 Top 10 legal aid payments to firms of solicitors 2006/7 (2005/6)
# 1 (1) Ross Harper, Glasgow £1,732,900
# 2 (2) Livingstone Brown, Glasgow £1,672,900
# 3 (3) Bruce Short & Co., Dundee £1,634,400
# 4 (5) George Mathers & Co., Aberdeen £1,438,900
# 5 (4) McCusker McElroy & Co., Johnstone £ 1,343,400
# 6 (9) Adams Whyte, Edinburgh £1,307,400
# 7 (12) Paterson Bell, Kirkcaldy £1,249,500
# 8 (7) Turnbull McCarron, Glasgow £1,244,600
# 9 (6) Drummond Miller LLP, Edinburgh £1,219,500
# 10 (8) Capital Defence, Edinburgh £1,104,600 All payments include VAT

Links http:// www.slab.org.uk

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