Saturday, June 21, 2008

Scottish Legal Aid Board running costs come in for criticism - make the industry pay instead ?

SLAB, the Scottish Legal Aid Board, which manages legal aid in Scotland, has come in for some harsh criticism over its costs.

Well, since the money goes to the legal profession, because the Law Society of Scotland has ensured that no one other than a lawyer can claim legal aid, how about making the legal profession pay for SLAB's running costs ? Problem solved !

The Herald reports :

Legal aid ‘wastes cash on red tape’


Running costs at the Scottish Legal Aid Board have jumped two-thirds in a decade despite a substantial drop in its caseload.

The quango yesterday confirmed that its administration budget increased by 65% over the past 10 years to nearly £13m this year while the number of grants it issued fell some 34,000 in the same period.

The board, however, defended extra spending on staff and computer systems which it believes will give the taxpayer better value for money on its biggest outgoing, the aid it provides for hundreds of thousands of legal and civil cases.

It did so as its record on red tape was attacked by one of Scotland's most prominent solicitors, Mike Dailly of the Govan Law Centre, in a major speech.

Mr Dailly yesterday told an audience of senior lawyers and industry experts that the board was "diverting" public money into bureaucracy while access to civil justice became a privilege only of the very poor, who are entitled to legal aid, and the very rich, who can afford their own lawyers.

Speaking at an Edinburgh conference sponsored by the Faculty of Advocates, Mr Dailly said: "Access seems to have regressed while bureaucracy has widened. Legal aid expenditure is officially demand-led and uncapped. Yet it might be thought what has happened is more public money has been diverted into bureaucracy and devices which have squeezed demand and restricted take-up."

He added: "Legal aid bureaucracy has grown exponentially over the last few years. Often a client does not have the information now required by the board and solicitors will have to write to local authorities, previous employers, and so on. The time and effort now required to obtain legal aid has become a major task in its own right."

Mr Dailly's Govan Law Centre is one of several community-based legal practices designed, like the board, to help ensure fair access to justice for all. Many clients are poor. But even those on benefits can struggle to get legal aid. The board is currently responsible for around £160m of grants a year, although it is able to claim some of that back when clients it funds win their cases. Its official net spending on grants was £150m in 2006-2007, up from £136m in 1996-1997. Mr Dailly, however, does not believe that this rise warrants increased spending on administration.

Solicitors, he said, are voting with their feet. He said: "The board confirms that in 2006 there were 736 firms registered for civil legal aid work, while in 2007 that number fell by 8% to 678." Forms for legal aid, he said, were long and off-putting, some stretching to 40 pages in length.

A spokesman for the board said much of the new spending on administration was designed to cut bureaucracy. Some of the administration budget went on new computers that are helping solicitors make online applications for grants.

"We have also invested in staff who are involved in quality insurance and checking for fraud. Our staff uncovered one fraud worth £1.7m," he said.

Higher administration costs, the board argues, have helped save money on grants.

The spokesman added: "Over the next few years we will start to see reductions in costs. Our budget for administration will stay the same way for the next three years."

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