With the Law Society of Scotland doing the stirring, it's little wonder that many legal firms want to come out of the civil legal aid market, but with the proposed opening of the legal services market by the OFT coming along soon, will consumers really face the advice deserts the Law Society claims will affect Scotland ? or will the new competition simply take on people under civil legal aid instead ?
Peter Cherbi tackles this subject further in his "Diary of Injustice in Scotland" HERE
The Scotsman reports :
HAMISH MACDONELL SCOTTISH POLITICAL EDITOR
THE future of civil legal aid in Scotland was thrown into doubt today by the publication of a survey showing nine out of ten law firms are so disillusioned with the system they are preparing to withdraw from all such cases over the next four years.
Lawyers across Scotland are frustrated with the bureaucracy, the way payments are worked out and, above all, with the low rates of pay under civil legal aid.
As a result, the number of law firms still offering their services for civil legal aid has gone down, with most of the remaining 736 firms preparing to pull out in the next four years.
Civil legal aid is provided to those who cannot afford the services of a solicitor in non-criminal cases. The most common use is for divorce, but women being abused often need legal aid to get court orders to keep their abusers away. Civil legal aid is also provided for adoption cases, debt and child law.
The survey also suggests that only a rethink of the system will prevent its wholesale collapse.
Oliver Adair, the convener of the Law Society's Legal Aid (solicitors) committee, warned that the most vulnerable in society would suffer if, as now seems likely, solicitors withdraw their services.
And he added that the 2003 reforms to the system, which were supposed to increase access for the most vulnerable, might end up doing the opposite.
The Law Society conducted the survey after hearing increasing amounts of anecdotal evidence of dissatisfaction with the reforms that were introduced by the previous Scottish administration.
The reforms were supposed to make the system simpler and more accessible for those most in need, introducing standard block fees for lawyers for set amounts of work and allowing lawyers to be paid for at least some of their work before the case was completed.
The basic fee is £19 for a block of work, and although the rates vary depending on the type of case, the kind of work involved and the court, it works out roughly at £52.60 an hour for work outside court and £60 an hour for representing clients in court.
However, the survey found 92 per cent of lawyers who provide services under civil legal aid were planning to end the service in the next four years. Most believe that they are getting so much less now, in terms of legal aid fees, that it does not make any sense to stay within the system.
When asked their reasons for either giving up or considering quitting civil legal aid, 80 per cent of lawyers said it was because the system was "financially unviable" and 60 per cent also complained about bureaucracy.
For most firms, civil legal aid amounts to only a small part of their work, so it would not be difficult for them to pull out.
While the Law Society survey stopped short of warning of a crisis, Mr Adair did admit that there were very serious problems ahead unless something was done to reform the system.
He said the funding system was not flexible enough to cope with cases which needed a lot of work. "Unfortunately, the people who will be the worst affected will be the most disadvantaged in society. The people who need help the most will not get access to it if lawyers pull out of the system," he said.
"Instead of improving access to justice, it would appear that the changes are having the opposite effect."
But Colin Sim, from the Legal Aid Board, said a review of the fee level had been started and it would be decided by ministers in the near future.
Mr Sim said: "There have already been changes and there is a review of the fee level under way. It is now a matter of the fee level to give an appropriate fee for solicitors, but it is unlikely to match the increases in private fees over recent years."
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "We are aware that civil legal aid fee levels are a major concern for solicitors. That is why the Scottish Legal Aid Board is reviewing the fees paid to solicitors undertaking civil legal aid work to see if the block fee arrangements are providing an appropriate level of remuneration.
"In the meantime, regulations have been laid in parliament this week which will improve payments for undefended (non-divorce) civil actions in the sheriff court. This should make it more financially viable for solicitors to take on work such as seeking a protection order."
The Herald reports :
Nine out of 10 law firms offering civil legal aid work will drop the service within the next four years, a poll revealed yesterday.
Most said they could no longer afford to do the work after reforms they claim have already turned huge swathes of Scotland into "advice deserts".
The survey, by the Law Society of Scotland, is the latest evidence of growing discontent among lawyers about the way fees are paid for civil legal aid.
Oliver Adair, a Larkhall solicitor who chairs the society's Legal Aid Committee, said the poll backed anecdotal evidence from across the country. Lawyers, unhappy with the system of block fees for civil legal aid work, are simply declining to take new cases, especially in complex family law.
Mr Adair said: "What we are talking about is a potential problem with access to justice for the most disadvantaged people."
The Scottish Government and Scottish Legal Air Board (Slab) yesterday acknowledged lawyers' concerns and said they were reviewing fees, something welcomed by Mr Adair. However, he added: "The survey results would suggest they have not done enough."
The Law Society survey, of more than 100 firms, found that 92% of those offering civil work for legal aid intended to stop doing so within the next four years. Fully 38% said they would drop the business within a year.
Only 3% of firms polled said reforms of 2003 - when the system of block fees was introduced - had increased their income from civil legal aid. Some 70% said their earnings from such business had fallen. Many firms said the amount of legal aid work they were doing had increased - mostly because rivals had dropped the business.
Of those planning to drop civil legal aid, four out of five said it was for financial reasons.
One firm said: "When it costs £60 or so an hour to pay qualified legal staff to undertake legal aid work, one would have to regard it as pro bono to undertake it at the silly rates offered by Slab."
Another said: "If the funding is not forthcoming, the scheme will simply wither away. That cannot be allowed to happen in a caring legal system."
Other firms said they would only do legal aid work for the most vulnerable, children and adults with incapacity. Money was not the only gripe. Some companies also complained that they were tied up in red tape.
The way lawyers were paid for civil legal aid changed in 2003. Until then they always received a "time and line payment". They still do for some work, from £53.60 to £68 an hour. Most of their fees, however, come in blocks of £19 with no hourly rate.
The Law Society sent the questionnaire to all firms registered to carry out civil legal aid, although not all responded.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said a review of fees was being carried out, and is due to be completed next month. "We're aware civil legal aid fee levels are a major concern for solicitors. That is why Slab is reviewing the fees paid to solicitors undertaking civil legal aid work to see if the block fee arrangements are providing an appropriate level of remuneration.
"In the meantime, regulations have been laid in parliament this week which will improve payments for undefended (non-divorce) civil actions in the Sheriff Court."
The spokesman also said Slab officials had been in talks with the Family Law Association to look at how lawyers should be paid for the kind of complex cases that are not suited for a block payment. Improvements could be made by the end of the year, he said.
The government has already made some moves to fill gaps left by private law firms pulling out of civil legal aid. Slab, for example, appointed a salaried lawyer based in Inverness, not least to help women who are the victims of domestic violence.
The Law Society poll follows a separate survey carried out by Mori more than a year ago. Mori spoke to around half of all firms then taking part in the civil legal aid scheme.
A spokesman for Slab said: "In our survey 62% said they were certain to or likely to still be doing legal aid work in three years time. Nineteen percent said they were not likely to and just 9% were certain not to."