Friday, November 23, 2007

Legal Aid in Scotland heads for the rocks as lawyers worry for jobs

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill recently gave a 1.8m rise in criminal legal aid .. but more is required, particularly rises in civil legal aid, to bridge the gap and maintain access to justice for all.

Could this be another building disappointment & failure for the SNP ?

Small town and single practitioners are being hit by a lack of legal aid, causing worry among them .. but it seems the Law Society of Scotland have left the small time solicitors out of their grand plans to stuff the coffers of the rich law firms with criminal legal aid ...

All the fault of the Law Society again folks - isn't it time we changed those who run the profession's governing body and give the membership a say this time ?

The Scotsman reports :

Job fear for hundreds as legal aid system heads for meltdown


HUNDREDS of criminal-law firms in Scotland face financial ruin due to a massive shake-up in the way solicitors are paid and crimes are prosecuted, it was claimed last night.

The Scotsman can reveal the country's leading court solicitors believe radical proposals to overhaul legal-aid fees will drive the profession to breaking point.

They claim the changes will force thousands of solicitors and support staff out of their jobs.

Lawyers also warn the squeeze will lead to more miscarriages of justice as they will be forced to spend less time preparing individual cases.

The Scottish Government proposals, announced last month and due to be introduced in the spring, have dismayed the legal establishment. One lawyer suggested the profession is now "in the death throes".

The Scottish Legal Aid Board believes the overhaul will result in some law firms losing as much as a quarter of their income - a scenario that solicitors say will drive hundreds out of business.

Small city-based firms operated by a single lawyer will be worst-hit and stand to lose between 20 and 26 per cent of their revenue.

Many bigger firms, whose business comes from representing people accused of crimes in court, are also facing hard times as a result of the moves.

However, a relatively small number of lawyers are expected to benefit financially.

Despite the warnings, opposition politicians last night welcomed the move to cut Scotland's £150 million annual legal-aid bill. A complex raft of proposed changes to legal-aid fees - the biggest in over a decade - are intended to reflect a drive to speed up the justice system.

Ministers are seeking quicker guilty pleas and the resolution of thousands of "low-level" cases, such as vandalism and breach of the peace, through fiscal fines and fixed-penalty notices, rather than ending up in court.

But solicitors claim the reforms will have a devastating impact, causing a "brain drain" that will seriously damage the quality and standing of Scotland's legal profession.

Lawyers working in district and sheriff courts say that fees they are paid for most cases will drop from £500 to £300.

John Scott, whose Edinburgh-based firm faces losing £63,000 a year as a result of the changes, said: "These proposals, if they are followed through, will put thousands of lawyers and legal staff out of work. Fewer lawyers will have to carry out more work and that is likely to result in more miscarriages of justice."

He said access to justice will also be affected by further proposed changes to the system, which he said will require thousands of people accused of crimes, including assault and housebreaking, to pay for their own legal representation.

Officials estimate the changes will slash approximately 7 per cent - or £4.5 million - from the bill for legal aid in district and sheriff-court cases.

But Mr Scott, president of the Edinburgh Bar Association - which represents more than 100 solicitors - said: "We have hit crisis point. These cuts will not just get rid of the flesh. They will strike at the bone. I cannot think of anything more damaging, short of scrapping the legal-aid system altogether.

"This will reduce the profession to a level beneath which it cannot properly operate. It will mean thousands of people will not be able to afford to be defended."

Another solicitor, Patrick McCann, who runs his own firm in Limekilns, Fife, said the criminal legal profession was "in the death throes".

He added: "I think privately instructed criminal defence will be finished in five years."

Oliver Adair, convener of the Law Society of Scotland's legal-aid solicitors committee, said: "The society is aware of the dissatisfaction among criminal legal-aid practitioners about the proposed reforms. We believe they will not work - for practitioners or the public - as they will restrict access to justice."

But Bill Aitken, the Tory justice spokesman, said: "Lawyers need to remember we are dealing with taxpayers' money. This is not a gravy train."

Paul Martin, for Scottish Labour, added: "We need value for money, but we also need a high-quality service."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "This is a genuine consultation - we will consider carefully what the profession and others say before finalising our proposals. The system will be more efficient and we will ensure that there is confidence in the system for all users, and value for money."

He said only about 0.5 per cent of accused people would be disqualified from getting legal aid.

'If this goes through I'll have to shut'

DARK clouds are hovering above Andrew Gilbertson's office in Dalkeith main street.

"If these changes go through, I'll have to shut up shop. There's no doubt about it," says the experienced court solicitor. "I'm the only defence agent in town. But they won't be able to find me here much longer, by the looks of things."

The government's proposed changes, he says, will slash the amount he is paid for representing the bulk of his clients from £500 to £300.

"My income will fall by 40 per cent. That's completely unsustainable. The office will have to close and I'll have to make my two part-time secretaries redundant."

Last year, his firm was paid £155,000 from the legal-aid board. But he says his outlays, including a mortgage for the office and staff salaries, leave him "constantly in overdraft".

"I'll try to keep going from home, with just a mobile and a laptop," added Mr Gilbertson.


What is legal aid?

Public money provided for people accused of crime, or those who seek recourse in the civil courts, to cover their legal costs. More than £150 million was spent on legal aid last year.

What are the proposed legal-aid reforms?

Cases that are quickly concluded with a guilty plea will attract a higher fee for solicitors of either £200 for district-court cases or £300 for more serious sheriff-court cases. The current fee is £70. Lawyers also receive £500 for a case that starts with a not- guilty plea, but does not go trial. These are expected to dry up, resulting in a net loss of income.

What will the changes mean for lawyers?

Some are expected to gain, but the vast majority will lose out. In the worst-case scenario, lawyers who work on their own will lose 26 per cent of their income. They warn that thousands of jobs, including solicitors and staff, will be shed.

Should we believe these claims?

It is unlikely that thousands of jobs will go, although many lawyers are now seriously worried about the future.

Why does this matter to the public?

Lawyers say they will have less time to spend on individual cases, raising the possibility that miscarriages of justice will occur. There will also be a "brain drain", they warn, with talented young lawyers moving into more lucrative jobs.

What other changes are proposed?

The government wants to change the eligibility rules for legal aid, so those with savings of as little as just over £1,500 will have to pay for a lawyer. Currently, the threshold is £6,879. Lawyers say thousands of people will be affected.

How many defence lawyers are there in Scotland?

There are about 600 firms, employing thousands of staff, and 1,500 solicitors, registered to carry out criminal legal-aid work.

Why do ministers want to introduce the changes?

To provide better value for money to the taxpayer and make the criminal-justice system more efficient. Officials estimate around £4.5 million will be saved from an annual summary-court legal-aid bill of about £65million

When will the changes be introduced?

The government says it intends to introduce reforms next spring, but insists it will listen to the concerns of lawyers.

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