Tuesday, November 06, 2007

MacAskill praises legal profession, asks lawyers to make legal aid work

Amidst a flurry of compliments to the legal profession, Scotland's Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, himself a former lawyer, asks for all solicitors to make the legal aid system work both effectively and efficiently.

Not much chance of that Mr MacAskill, as one critic reports HERE

The Scotsman reports :

'We must all strive to make sure that legal aid works both efficiently and effectively'


SCOTLAND owes an immense debt to its legal profession which has helped people at times of crisis, protecting the rights of the vulnerable and supporting business and economic growth.

As cabinet secretary for justice, I want the profession to flourish and to compete in the modern world. That means adapting just like any other profession or business to the changes and challenges which the modern world throws up.

So what does that commitment to the profession mean in terms of the Scottish Government's position on legal aid? My aim is a simple one: to ensure that lawyers get paid appropriately and fairly for the work they do for people who would not otherwise be able to afford such help. That is why I announced a substantial increase in fees for those who represent accused persons in solemn cases, linked to reforms which will finally settle several years of negotiation. I will be announcing further increases to civil fees soon.

Expert advice from qualified professionals does not come cheaply, however, and we need to ask how we can continue to ensure fair reward for practitioners and fair access for the public without large increases in public expenditure.

This is not just another plea for savings and efficiency. The unavoidable fact is that there is no scope for substantial increases in legal aid spending in the near future. Any increases will only be affordable if savings elsewhere in the system release funds.

We must all strive to make sure that legal aid works efficiently and effectively. For government, that means not introducing change for its own sake. It means reducing bureaucracy and making processes simpler and clearer. It also means we may have to face some difficult decisions in the future about what legal aid should be for. The world has changed considerably since the legal aid system was introduced nearly 60 years ago.

We cannot and should not expect the courts to solve every problem or the state to fund everyone's legal representation in every dispute or difficulty. Such a view simply isn't going to be sustainable in the future. At the same time, legal aid lawyers need to be able to continue to do the vital work that they do and to be paid fairly for it.

For the profession it means working in a legal aid system which supports efficient judicial processes following the Bonomy and McInnes reforms, and those which will follow Lord Gill's current review of civil courts.

I want to think carefully about how judicial structures will look in the light of Lord Gill's review. It would not be appropriate to make radical changes to civil legal aid before Lord Gill reports but that doesn't mean that we sit on our hands until the spring of 2009; we need to develop our thinking while the review is going on.

Legal aid should be about paying people properly for work they need to do, stripping out wasteful process and getting cases dealt with at the right level. It should be about focusing on what work justifies expert legal involvement at public expense and being prepared to consider alternative ways of funding or providing help in less complex cases.

We also need to think about whether more types of legal problems can be dealt with effectively outwith the court system. If that helps improve efficiency and helps people get their problems resolved quickly, we should be prepared to consider it.

Our legal system must adapt to a changing world, but maintain the values that underpin it.

• Kenny MacAskill is Scotland's justice secretary.

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