Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Scots access to justice ‘at risk’ under MacAskill legal aid cuts plan as Law Society hits out over Holyrood vote to reject amendments over contributions

Disappointment reigns at Law Society HQ over Holyrood Legal Aid vote AS SOLICITORS stood outside the Scottish Parliament buildings today with placards, protesting against cuts to the legal aid budget, the Law Society of Scotland was today forced to issue a media release expressing disappointment after the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee backed the SNP Government’s legal aid cuts plan, which appears to undermine Scots access to justice & a fair trial, undermine the authority of the Scottish Legal Aid Board itself, and even force solicitors to become collection points for legal aid contributions from clients judged to have sufficient disposable funds to pay for their legal representation.

One keen observer of Scotland’s legal system condemned the move as “madness”, pointing out the current Chief Executive of the Scottish Legal Aid Board, Lindsay Montgomery, had previously jibed that solicitors “could not count”, making the prospect of increased errors or fraud a significant possibility as solicitors become overwhelmed by sums in their care. However, the campaigner also pointed out a fair trial in Scots law must be a priority, particularly with Scotland’s prosecution service, the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) being well known as an untrustworthy “Institutionally corrupt” organisation, even apparently among senior Scottish Ministers.

In response to solicitors "threatening industrial action" over the collection of contributions, Oliver Adair, the Law Society of Scotland's Legal Aid convener, said earlier this week : "We have presented compelling evidence to the Scottish Government and to the Scottish Parliament that the Scottish Legal Aid Board is the body best equipped to collect criminal legal aid contributions.  We will continue to make this case to MSPs as the Bill goes through parliament. We understand the profession's frustrations, which we share, as the Scottish Government does not recognise the validity of our arguments in relation to the collection of contributions."

The Law Society of Scotland’s Press Release :

Society 'disappointed' by Justice Committee vote on legal aid

The Law Society of Scotland today expressed its disappointment after a majority of members of the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee voted to reject key amendments to the legislation that introduces contributions in criminal legal aid. The votes followed a morning of protest outside the Scottish Parliament by over a hundred lawyers from across Scotland.

Oliver Adair, the Society's legal aid convener said: "The Law Society has argued that the proposed levels at which an accused person would be expected to make contributions towards the cost of their legal defence is far too low. We also explained how the Scottish Legal Aid Board is best placed to collect the contributions and that the burden of collection should not fall on individual solicitors.

"It is disappointing that, despite the Justice Committee's earlier report, a majority of members voted against important amendments that would have responded to these issues and improved the Bill as a whole.

"It is now important for us to listen to our members ahead of the Stage 3 debate in the Scottish Parliament later this month. We will be holding an early meeting with representatives from local law faculties from across Scotland and will use this to consider our next steps.  During the committee session, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice expressed a willingness to engage with us directly on the issues raised.  We will certainly be taking him up on that offer."

Austin Lafferty, president of the Law Society of Scotland who attended today's demonstration said: "The impressive turnout at today's protest showed the huge strength of feeling amongst solicitors. They believe passionately in protecting our legal aid system and are deeply concerned by some of the key aspects of the proposed changes which are thought to be unfair, both to those who find themselves accused of a crime and to the solicitors acting on their behalf.

"The Scottish Government's latest drive to reduce the legal aid budget cannot be seen in isolation from the savings already made over the last few years.  This has included significant cuts to the fees paid to solicitors for acting on behalf of people who cannot themselves afford legal representation.  The profession has always tried to work constructively with government in its bid to save money but the suggested collection proposal is simply unfair.

"It is great that so many chose to voices their concerns today.  However, it is regrettable that the compelling arguments they and the Society presented were not supported by a majority of the Justice Committee."

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