The Law Society of Scotland has contacted all Members of the Scottish Parliament and predicted that legislation introducing a system of collection in criminal legal aid is likely to cause a series of difficulties and reiterated its view that the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) should collect in all cases where a contribution is owed.
The Society issued its detailed written briefing to MSPs ahead of the final parliamentary debate on the legislation which will introduce contributions in criminal legal aid. The Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance (Scotland) Bill will be considered by the Scottish Parliament for the last time on Tuesday 29 January.
The Society stressed that it was supportive of the principle of contributions and had agreed to a number of specific amendments to improve the legislation but highlighted a number of outstanding issues, particularly on the responsibility for collecting contributions where solicitors will be expected to collect in most cases.
Convener of the Law Society's criminal legal aid negotiating team, Ian Moir said: "We believe, have always believed and continue to argue that the Scottish Legal Aid Board should collect all contributions where they will be owed. Such a burden should not fall on individual solicitors.
"SLAB is by far and away the body best equipped to collect in criminal legal aid, just as it does in civil cases. The Cabinet Secretary has repeatedly told us that the principle of collection was non-negotiable. We do not believe the Scottish Government has presented a compelling case for solicitors collecting contributions and, as such, we remain fundamentally opposed to this part of the Bill. We hope these views will be aired during the debate in the Scottish Parliament next week."
The Society has agreed to a number of amendments aimed at improving the Bill and additional regulations, including;
An increase in the disposable income threshold at which someone would be expected to pay a contribution, from £68 per week to £83 per week, reducing the numbers eligible for making a contribution by 30%
A guarantee that such a change would not be paid for through cuts to solicitor fees
The removal of certain benefits from income calculations such as disability living allowance and war pensions
The removal of police station advice and cases involving remand or custodial sentences from the contributions system.
Ian Moir added: "Thanks to the package of improvements which we negotiated, some of the poorest will be taken out of having to make a contribution altogether, including many disabled people and war veterans. That package also means solicitors will have to collect contributions in far fewer cases. In fact, some of the cases where it would have been virtually impossible to collect the contribution have been removed from the collection system altogether.
"Even with these improvements, the legislation is likely to create a number of practical difficulties, particularly with solicitors being forced to collect contributions. This is not the Bill we would have ideally wanted and there is no doubt that we will have to revisit these issues in future."