Council reports 2014

Report of Cabinet Secretary for Justice address to Council, 28 February 2014

The Scottish Government will “listen, engage and discuss” with the solicitors’ profession but no more money is available to spend on the legal system, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice told Council members.

Kenny MacAskill set out his position during an address and Q&A session at the Council’s annual away day.

During a discussion on legal aid cuts, Mr MacAskill acknowledged that investment would ultimately be needed to avoid a collapse of the system.

He said: “I recognise that there is a situation where you have to ultimately increase costs otherwise it’s going to collapse.

“I recognise that the way we have had to deal with it is to tighten the belt and spread the jam thin. I do recognise that there comes a time where that is untenable – I hope we don’t reach that because I think that maintaining the integrity of the system is the right thing to do.

“But I can’t give you any assurance. I do feel the pain. I do accept the justness of your case.”

In answer to a question about the need to invest to create a modern, effective legal system, he said: “Ultimately, we think we have to get ahead of the game but at the moment we are struggling just to cope with what we’ve got and the budget is shrinking.

“The challenges have not gone. I can’t give you an assurance when we are going to be able to ease off.”

He added: “It is a period of austerity. We are coming out of it but there is no sack of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

He stressed that the Scottish Government had to balance competing priorities, just as he did as justice secretary, when considering how to spend money allocated from the UK Government.

Mr MacAskill faced a series of questions on the Scottish Government’s plans to abolish the requirement for corroboration in criminal cases, which was agreed in a stage 1 debate at the Scottish Parliament yesterday.

He promised that a “veritable brains trust” of the legal profession, under Lord Bonomy, would review the question of ensuring appropriate safeguards are in place to protect against miscarriages of justice.

Describing the previous day’s parliamentary debate as “tempestuous and rowdy”, he added: “I do believe that the case against corroboration has been made. But I do accept the legitimate, well thought out position of many that we require to ensure that there are adequate safeguards and that is why I have instructed Lord Bonomy to carry out his review into the matter.

“His reference group is a veritable brains trust of the profession at judicial level, at practitioner level, at academic level. And I am sure they will come back with the best possible safeguards we can have that will match any other jurisdiction in the world.”

He said the abolition was necessary to provide access to justice for victims of rape, sexual offences and other crimes where corroboration can be difficult.

He added that further delaying the move, for instance by passing it to the Scottish Law Commission for consideration, would continue to deny access to justice for victims until after 2016.

In a wide-ranging discussion, he also promised that “my mind is absolutely open” on the issue of contracting in criminal legal aid, adding: “Discussions are ongoing and I can give you an absolute assurance I have formed no view and I would think that a decision will be made sooner rather than later.”

Likewise, with the issue of improving access to the legal profession – despite the government’s decision to end grant funding for the Diploma – he said he had a “blank sheet of paper” on the issue and was happy to engage with the profession.

Mr MacAskill said court closures had not been introduced with any relish but were necessary to maintain the service. He said the capacity of courts was being monitored.

He expressed concern about the question of mergers and takeovers with firms based in England and suggested that voting in favour of independence in the referendum later this year could help address the situation.

In conclusion, he told Council members: “I know it’s not been happy times and I’m genuinely sorry for that. But I am grateful for the service that you give and Scotland is a better place for what you do.

“I don’t have any more money so I can’t put that on the table. I’m happy to listen, to engage and to discuss. The door’s open.”