Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill wants to impose £68 disposable income threshold on criminal legal aid. THE Law Society of Scotland have reiterated it’s stance over Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill’s plan to introduce a 68 a week disposable income threshold for making financial contributions to criminal legal aid. The Justice Secretary’s plan has been widely condemned as yet another SNP restriction on access to justice & access to a fair trial, given that benefits payments are also to be considered as part of an accused’s disposable income.
The lack of availability of legal aid in criminal cases is already having an impact on Scotland’s criminal justice system, where Sheriffs are being forced to dismiss criminal charges against accused due to the lack of funding for a fair trial, reported earlier by Scottish Law Reporter HERE
The Law Society of Scotland issued a Press Release stating : Society holds firm on stance on criminal contributions to legal aid
The Law Society of Scotland today raised serious concerns over the detail of new legislation which introduces financial contributions for many of those receiving criminal legal aid.
Submitting its written evidence to the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee, the Society said the threshold at which contributions would become payable was too low. It also argued that the Scottish Legal Aid Board rather than solicitors should collect the contributions to ensure a consistent system.
The Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance Bill was introduced in May this year. The legislation would establish a Civil Justice Council and introduce financial contributions for criminal legal aid for the first time.
The Society has consistently supported the principle of contributions in criminal legal aid but has raised a series of concerns over the detail of the Scottish Government's proposals.
Oliver Adair, the convener of the Society's legal aid negotiating team, said: "We agree that people who can afford to pay a portion of the cost of their legal aid should do, provided they can afford it. However the Bill proposes that the threshold for determining whether a contribution is payable should be £68 disposable income a week. We do not believe that is a realistic amount from which to expect anybody to pay towards their legal costs. We also have concerns around some of the areas which would be included in disposable income calculations, such as disability living allowance and war pensions. This would mean some of the most vulnerable people who rely on legal aid could have to pay a sizeable contribution towards the cost of their defence directly from their benefit payments."
In its detailed evidence to the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee, the Society also reiterated its objection to solicitors having to collect the contributions.
Adair continued: "The Bill as its stands would leave solicitors as unpaid public debt collectors. The Scottish Legal Aid Board is the obvious body for collecting the contributions. After all, they already collect contributions in civil legal aid cases, and have procedures in place to carry out large scale collection of contributions. Providing a central collection body ensures that there is a clear and consistent system and would match other jurisdictions operating centralised collections systems such as England and Wales, Canada and Australia."
The Bill also introduces a new Civil Justice Council whose responsibilities the Society described as 'significant and far reaching'.
Kim Leslie, convener of the Society's civil justice committee, said: "We are supportive of one overarching Civil Justice Council. However we have serious concerns about the proposal to have only two solicitor members sitting on it. There are currently ten solicitors on the existing Sheriff Court Rules Council and the Court of Session Rules Council, five on each. There has been no cogent reason put forward for the reduction of the solicitor membership to two. Solicitors are the largest group of regular court users and appear daily in Sheriff Courts across the country. Their experience of the courts and procedures is greater than any other group of participants. That is why we would like to see at least six solicitor members on the new Civil Justice Council."
The Society's full memorandum of evidence can be found on the Society's website full memorandum of evidence