Case for legal aid contracting yet to be made says Law Society President
A compelling case has yet to be made for the introduction of contracting in criminal legal aid, the Law Society of Scotland President said today (Friday 13 September).
Addressing solicitors during the annual legal aid conference in Dunblane, Bruce Beveridge said that his "mind was not closed" to contracting but argued that a sufficiently robust case had yet to be presented by the Scottish Legal Aid Board.
The Scottish Legal Aid Board is currently developing proposals around the introduction of contracting for criminal legal aid in Scotland and is expected to submit options to the Scottish Government in October.
Over the last few months, the Board has held a number of 'dialogue events' with solicitors across Scotland to discuss the background to contracting in criminal legal assistance.
The Cabinet Secretary for Justice, who delivered the keynote address during today's conference, has promised full discussion with the legal profession before any decisions are taken.
Addressing the legal aid conference's opening session, Bruce Beveridge said: "Contracting has the potential to bring about a sea change in the way legal aid is delivered in Scotland. It could have a far-reaching impact on people accused of crimes and on defence solicitors representing them.
"The question is whether or not a compelling case has yet been made to justify bringing forward the scale of change that contracting would signify. Is there a significant problem needing resolved that justifies enacting a section of legislation which has sat dormant since it was passed by the Conservative government more than 16 years ago? At this stage and for me at least, I am not yet satisfied that a sufficiently clear and compelling case has been made.
"That is not to close my mind to the issue. It simply recognises that, for me and on the basis or the arguments presented, a robust case for such a significant change to our legal aid system has yet to be made.
"We know the Scottish Government has committed to save money in legal aid. Indeed, one of the objectives for contracting is to make £3 million of savings. It is therefore difficult to see how anything other than a price-based model of contracting could make these savings. But this appears to be just the kind of contracting model that was considered and ultimately rejected for England and Wales by the Westminster Government last week."
Mr Beveridge also used his address to highlight the important work that legal aid solicitors carry out, describing them as "essential to the effective operation of our justice system". He also talked of the high standard of service that Scottish solicitors have been providing in legal aid.
He said: "There is a broad suite of evidence to show that, despite the challenging backdrop and cuts in expenditure, client satisfaction remains high and that members are providing a very high standard of service across the country. In addition, our existing model provides a comprehensive network of providers offering criminal legal aid services right across the country. These are crucial characteristics of our legal aid system in Scotland. We should be proud of that.
"Until we see specific proposals from the Scottish Government, we cannot say whether a move to any contracting delivery model will be better for clients, access to justice and delivery of legal aid, compared to the system we currently have. That will be the key question to answer - the principle test - when considering the proposals."
Notes to editors
The legislative framework for introducing contracting in criminal legal aid is in place through section 52 of the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Act 1997.
More information is available via the Law Society website
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION: Please contact Suzy Powell on 0131 476 8115/07712 488875.
13 September 2013