Thirty minutes to help defend legal aid
Mark Thorley and Jim Stephenson are partners at Thorley Stephenson, and members of the Law Society’s Legal Aid Committee.
We recently replied to the Law Society’s legal aid financial survey.
It took about 30 minutes of our time and involved providing, in confidence, some details of our firm’s income which comes from legal aid work.
Input from firms is needed to paint a picture of the sustainability of legal aid work in Scotland due to the current level of the legal aid budget.
It will help add hard facts to the argument we’ve been making to the government for years that access to justice in Scotland is suffering due to a lack of funding.
If we are to win this argument, every bit of evidence we can bring to the negotiating table will help. Every reply to the survey could make a difference. Every figure typed into the form could be the decisive one.
But until we can present the government with evidence that shows the reality of the financial situation for legal aid firms and their ability to take on cases, little is likely to change.
It is true that the research is only part of the argument. To make the case we need to keep pushing the arguments about the impacts on clients, the reductions in expenditure, the static and declining fee rates as well as look at comparative earnings in other sectors.
The importance of the research cannot be underestimated however. This is the first time that a profitability analysis of legal aid firms of this scope and scale has ever been carried out in Scotland. We have commissioned law firm management consultants with particular experience of undertaking financial research. We believe that the results will be extremely useful, especially given the very scant financial evidence that the government has relied on in the past.
Last year the Society published a recommendations paper on reforming the legal aid system. This year hundreds of solicitors wrote to their local candidates in the Holyrood elections asking them to defend legal aid.
Many of the MSPS that are now sitting in the Scottish Parliament made that promise. Now we must keep applying pressure and ensure those promises are kept.
This is why the research is so important.
It is one thing writing to the government telling them that access to justice - a fundamental part of our society - is under threat. Demonstrating the point is an entirely different thing.
So we would urge every Scottish firm that does legal aid work to complete the survey. It’s not difficult to complete and the Society won’t see individual responses. You don’t even need to answer all the questions – just give as much information as you can.
Next year, some of the legal aid rates will have been frozen for 25 years, an astonishing quarter of a century. 30 minutes to complete a survey is the least we can do to make sure we don’t have to mark that anniversary.