Council reports 2013

Report of Cabinet Secretary for Justice address to Council, 22 February 2013

Changes to legal aid have been difficult and caused upset but the Scottish Government had no alternative due to pressures on public finances, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice told the Society’s Council during an address and Q&A session.

Kenny MacAskill also assured Council members that there was no “master plan” to introduce a new system of contracting of firms in criminal cases, or roll out the Public Defence Solicitors’ Office (PDSO).

In a wide-ranging address, he discussed issues such as access to justice, court closures, access to the profession, the rule of law, the franchise for the referendum on Scottish independence and liquor licensing.

Much of the session focused on legal aid issues following the passing of the Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance (Scotland) Bill through the Scottish Parliament at the end of January. The legislation introduced contributions for criminal legal aid, with solicitors expected to collect payments from clients.

Mr MacAskill said the easiest option for the Scottish Government would have been to follow the model in England and Wales and remove whole areas of legal work from the legal aid system.

He added that the Scottish Government’s intention was to preserve the integrity of the legal aid system, which will continue to protect the most vulnerable in society.

He said: “I actually think we’ve got the right method here so it did mean belt tightening and it has meant hardship for some. It has meant working harder or longer when people already work long and hard so it gives me no satisfaction but I didn’t feel that I had any alternative. I didn’t wish to be doing this. But I have to make hard decisions and that was the decision I made.

“I know the challenges and I know that this has caused great upset to many. These are difficult times. I have had to make decisions that are very unpopularwith some of you.

“I think the Scottish legal aid system can hold its head up high, most especially with what’s happening south of the border but even with what’s happening across the Irish Sea.”

He explained that only those who could afford to make a contribution to criminal legal aid would do so – with 88% of people making no contribution – while the matter of collection was a “culture change” for solicitors.

He apologised for the difficulties facing the criminal bar but added: “If we come together on a basis of mutual respect and understanding, we are actually all on the same side. We will disagree about tactics. We will disagree about individual decisions. I don’t expect them to be appreciated and I can understand the depth of feeling. I hope, though, people would recognise that it came from a position of trying to preserve the best aspects of the profession.”

On the issue of contracting, he said there was a commitment to look at the system but “there is no master plan about to be unfolded on the profession – it doesn’t exist”.

He said: “Nothing has come before me about contracting – there is nothing formulated at all. I’ve ruled nothing in and I’ve ruled nothing out. Let’s engage and discuss.”

Likewise, he added that there was no “grand plan” to roll out the PDSO, though he would do what was necessary to protect the integrity of the court system where a lack of representation existed.

In response to a question about the possibility of court closures, Mr MacAskill pointed out that solicitors themselves had complained about the “dismal” facilities at some courts. He acknowledged that some premises may be untenable but the issues were a matter for the Lord President and the Scottish Court Service.

The possible removal of the requirement for corroboration, he said, would be discussed by the Scottish Parliament, taking account of all views on the issue.

Responding to a question about government policy threatening the rule of law, he added: “The suggestion that Scotland is living in the lap of a dictatorship is just not true.”

Mr MacAskill recognised that the debate on alternative business structures had caused division in the profession “and it still rankles with some” but he insisted the right decisions had been taken and efforts were being made to introduce reforms to the marketplace as quickly and efficiently as possible.

On other issues, he defended the shift in Diploma funding from grants to loans and argued that the franchise for the referendum on independence was based on the same system of voting as Scottish parliamentary elections, which was set by the UK Government. He said the move to a single police force could improve the system of liquor licensing in Scotland.

The minister paid tribute to the Society for its “outstanding job” in engaging with government on behalf of the solicitors’ profession and the clients they serve, telling Council members: “You have some of the most assiduous and best representatives of any organisation.”

He concluded that the profession was very different to the one he joined in the 1980s, not least because of cutbacks and redundancies. He said: “It’s a lot harder now. Some of the changes I would probably have preferred not to have made but the world we live in has changed and we have to go with it. I hope you would be able to appreciate that the commitment is to making the profession better, stronger and retaining its integrity.”

The Society President, Austin Lafferty, thanked Mr MacAskill for addressing Council members.