Law Society calls for legal aid investment to protect access to justice
The Law Society of Scotland has published a package of recommendations to create a better funded and more efficient legal aid system which will protect access to justice in Scotland.
The Law Society has said increased use of technology, a revised fee structure, and the creation of civil legal aid grants would improve the legal aid system and generate savings which it says, should be reinvested in legal aid provision.
The recommendation paper Legal Assistance In Scotland - Fit for the 21st Century published today, 5 May 2015, follows wide consultation with solicitors and others across the legal and advice sectors on the changes needed to ensure a sustainable system which will provide access to justice for those who need it, regardless of their financial circumstances.
The paper makes specific proposals for both criminal and civil legal aid provision which include:
Criminal legal aid
· The introduction of a block fees system for solemn cases
· A fixed fee for police station advice
· Review of funding structures for criminal appeals to ensure they support court practices and procedures
Civil legal aid
· Development of a single grant system, removing current distinctions between Advice and Assistance, Assistance By Way of Representation, and Legal Aid.
· Explore the potential benefits of increased joint working between solicitors and the advice sector, including the provision of funding
Alistair Morris, President of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “Ensuring access to justice for all is a fundamental part of our society. Legal aid allows people to seek advice at what are often the most challenging times in their lives whether they have been unfairly dismissed, unlawfully evicted, need to resolve custody of their children or are facing criminal charges.
“We don’t believe that the current system is fit for purpose and, with the ongoing reforms to modernise the wider court and justice system, the time is right for root and branch change. We need to rethink legal aid as a whole and look at where efficiencies can be made and how savings can be reinvested to ensure that people can obtain legal advice when they need it most, regardless of their status or wealth.
“We think it essential that there is proper investment to halt to the real-term decline we have seen in legal aid expenditure over the years.
“The recommendations we make in our paper will help streamline legal assistance, reducing complexity and the administrative burden, and allow businesses to be more efficient. This will help generate savings which can then be reinvested.
“We fully understand that public funding remains an issue for all frontline services, but we believe that with the high prevalence of justice problems, the social, emotional and financial cost of leaving these unresolved is too high a price to pay.”
Figures from the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey 2012/13 have shown that legal difficulties are a fairly common occurrence, with 23% of people experiencing a civil justice problem in the past three years. The majority, at 54%, of these problems were not resolved.
Mr Morris said: “These are issues which can spiral and ultimately cost us more as a society. We are fortunate not to have experienced the sweeping cuts seen south of the border and we know that legal aid in Scotland has helped in 250,000 cases in the last year. However we cannot ignore the impact of the real-term decline on the sustainability of the delivery of publically funded advice.
“Our recommendations paper is the result of wide consultation with solicitors and others involved in the justice and advice sectors. We have listened to their ideas and issues raised following publication of our discussion paper in November, including the concerns expressed on changing the scope of civil legal aid provision. Following input from a range of respondents and from looking at the effect of changes to scope in other jurisdictions we don’t believe this should be altered.
“We believe that these proposals will help create a better legal assistance system that provides sustainable access to justice to citizens across Scotland, ensuring that it remains fit for the 21st century.”
The recommendations paper is available to read on the Law Society website. Legal Assistance in Scotland – Fit for the 21st century.
Note to editors
The Law Society’s Legal Assistance in Scotland - Fit for the 21st Century Discussion Paper invited feedback from solicitors and other stakeholders until 30 January 2015. Around 50 responses were received from individuals, faculties, and organisations.
For more information see the Legal Aid and Access to Justice section of the Society’s website.
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