Sunday, July 13, 2008

Lawyers work to rule action over legal aid fees back on the cards in Glasgow

The 'work to rule' or disruption threatened by the legal profession over the removal of legal aid fees for representing clients during custody visits may see cases halted or thrown out - on ECHR grounds.

Pity that some in the legal profession couldn't be a bit more consistent when it comes to ECHR these days - particularly when someone is denied a fair hearing by a member of the legal profession itself !

The Sunday Herald reports :

Lawyers to disrupt cases over fees row

By John Bynorth

CRIMINAL DEFENCE lawyers are threatening to force cases to be halted or thrown out on the grounds that their clients' human rights are threatened by the removal of Legal Aid fees for representing them during custody visits.

The Glasgow Bar Association (GBA) will lodge motions with sheriffs arguing that accused people will not receive a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) following the decision two weeks ago to remove the "advice and assistance" £42.20 hourly fee for consultations in police custody.

Solicitors are angry the Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab) has merged their fee into a payment of £515 for dealing with overall cases, no matter how long they take, and claim it represents a 29% drop in their Legal Aid fees which threatens the future of the consultations.

The GBA will target specific cases at Glasgow Sheriff Court where clients have not been represented in police custody because of the new rules by lodging a minute with the sheriff at the pleading diet that will argue the accused's right to a fair trial under the ECHR is threatened.

The motion will force the sheriff to adjourn the case and the solicitors will argue at a fresh hearing that their clients would be denied a fair trial because they did not receive legal representation in custody. The GBA hopes the tactic will force the Scottish government and Slab to rewrite the regulations governing the Legal Aid reforms.

Last week solicitor general Frank Mulholland defended the system of "direct measures" which came into effect following the government's summary justice reforms in March, where less serious cases are dealt with by fines rather than in the courts.

The GBA has estimated that 6500 cases which should have gone to Glasgow Sheriff Court were dealt with by alternative fixed penalties between their introduction and June 30.

However, Mulholland denied that summary prosecutions had been cut by 75%, and said allegations that the Crown Office didn't respond to crime were "not borne out by the facts".

John McGovern, secretary of the GBA, said: "The independent criminal bar in Scotland has been under threat for the best part of 10 years. These latest cuts in the funding of the independent criminal bar directly impact on an accused person's ECHR rights. For that reason the GBA intends to contest them in the courts."

A spokesman for Slab said that a system of "exceptional payments" existed for lawyers who spent two hours or more dealing with clients in custody or who have to travel substantial distances to police stations, and the changes were agreed after consultations with the legal profession.

The changes are being reviewed by a group which will report to justice secretary Kenny MacAskill by December.

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