In research commissioned by the Scottish Executive into how lawyers fees have faired over the ministerial changes to legal aid payments, it is thought that justice is threatened, because lawyers aren't getting enough money for their work.
The Herald reports "Fixed fees has not speeded things up nor had the impact that ministers wished for and that is partly because they did not take account of the fact that the client determines when to plead guilty. This research could and should have been published 18 months ago but for some reason it was held back."
Probably the research was held back because of the strike by Scottish lawyers over handling sex crime and a whole range of other types of cases ... but Michael Clancy, a past President of the Law Society and now it's director of law reform - claims in the article that ... "The researchers acknowledge that defence solicitors are dedicated and professional people who would not abandon professional principles for financial gain,"
Well, Mr Clancy, that's a bit of an odd statement to make, when your colleagues stopped representing clients and raised the possibility that their boycott of serious crime cases would allow the likes of sex offenders and other criminals back onto the street .. just so they could increase their bargaining hand with the Scottish Executive over the question of legal aid payments ....
Read on for the article, from The Herald newspaper, at : http://www.theherald.co.uk/politics/69170.html
Fixed fees move 'threatens justice'
LUCY ADAMS, Home Affairs Correspondent August 31 2006
The risk of miscarriages of justice has been increased as a result of ministerial changes to lawyers' fees, according to new research commissioned by the Scottish Executive.
The study has revealed that changes to the legal aid system, aimed at speeding up the courts and reducing the cost to the taxpayer, have in fact led to less-effective work and little improvement in delays.
In 1999 ministers introduced fixed fees of £300 for cases in the district court and £500 for those in the sheriff courts.
The aim was to cap costs and reduce the overall legal aid bill. Lawyers warned that the new system would be unworkable and did not take complex cases into account.
Henry McLeish, the then Minister of State for Home Affairs, said at the time: "I am satisfied that, taking their caseload as a whole, solicitors will be able to provide a quality service for the payments on offer."
The research, which was due to be published 18 months ago, has not yet been released by the executive but has appeared in a legal journal. The delay has been questioned by lawyers waiting for reform of legal aid.
Following telephone interviews and questionnaires from more than 150 solicitors and 17 procurators-fiscal, researchers from Strathclyde University found a significant reduction in contact between clients and solicitors and in the use of precognition. Those interviewed also indicated that some solicitors had been forced to cut corners to ensure their businesses were kept afloat.
The report, by Cyrus Tata and Frank Stephen, states: "Client contact was reported to have decreased sharply as a result of the impact of fixed payments. Several defence solicitors suggested the reduction in client contact has led to less-effective defence work."
It goes on: "There was felt to be a greater risk of wrongful convictions, as a consequence of the impact of fixed payments."
It was hoped that the introduction of fixed fees would increase the number of suspects who pled guilty at the earliest stage, thereby saving time and taxpayers' money.
However, the findings indicate that fixed fees result in more people pleading guilty at the intermediate diet rather than before proceedings start.
The report says: "The decline in the use of precognitions, brought about by fixed payments, may also have had a postponing effect on pleading practices. It does not, however, appear to have led to a reduction in the overall incidence of cracked trials [pleading guilty on the day of trial].
"Furthermore, the system of fixed payments seems to have led to a reduction in client contact and a decline in the overall levels of preparation and case investigation."
Since fixed fees were introduced, the numbers of solicitors doing criminal legal aid cases has decreased by 25%. In 1998 there were 2000 registered. By the end of 2004 it had dropped to just 1500.
Gerry Considine, who is vice-president of the Glasgow Bar Association, said: "We warned that this would happen because by cutting preparation lawyers were left with far less time to prepare cases.
"Fixed fees has not speeded things up nor had the impact that ministers wished for and that is partly because they did not take account of the fact that the client determines when to plead guilty. This research could and should have been published 18 months ago but for some reason it was held back."
Michael Clancy, director of law reform at the Law Society of Scotland, said further research is required.
"The researchers acknowledge that defence solicitors are dedicated and professional people who would not abandon professional principles for financial gain," he said.
An executive spokeswoman said: "Fixed payments for summary criminal legal aid were introduced in 1999 to give a fair level of remuneration to the legal profession while ensuring that the taxpayer received value for money from the criminal legal aid system."