The change of Prime Minister has again raised the profile of Brexit; but this month we also mark the 70th anniversary of legal aid, and recognise all that it has meant to so many people

A very warm welcome to August’s column. How wrong was I when I gloomily suggested the Scottish summer might have been over by the time you read the July column?

Of course, it wasn’t only the weather that heated up. The political mercury edged up just a bit further with Mr Johnson becoming the Prime Minister. This in turn has fanned greater speculation of a no-deal Brexit. The Law Society of Scotland is entirely neutral on political matters. The Society’s team continues to work tirelessly to keep everyone up to date about all potential outcomes, which is no easy task. However, on a practical level, whatever happens, deal or no deal, it appears at the moment that the UK will leave the EU on 31 October.

Leaving the EU will have consequences for us as solicitors. I know many of you have only ever practised as a solicitor while the UK has been a member of the EU. Membership guarantees certain rights for all EU citizens, and the existence of a predictable legal structure framed around established and largely stable institutions. The post-EU legal landscape for now is far from clear. What is clear is that it will be shaped by the advice that we give, the rights and obligations we identify and the outcomes of the cases we choose to litigate. There is no doubt we will have to look at this again in October, when we may have more clarity.

Legal aid at 70

In the Society’s platinum year it’s worth remembering that legal aid in Scotland is also 70 years old. The Legal Aid and Solicitors (Scotland) Act, having received Royal Assent at the end of July, came into force in August 1949. The white paper preceding the legislation said the aim was “to provide legal advice for those of slender means and resources, so that no one would be financially unable to prosecute a just and reasonable claim or defend a legal right; and to allow counsel and solicitors to be remunerated for their services”.

There can be no doubt that this was an extraordinary piece of visionary legislation. The country was in the grip of post-war austerity. When I was a child, Mum and Dad would quite happily regale the family with stories about rationing, which only ended in 1954. For the Government to provide a brand new source of public funding for legal services at the time was quite remarkable. It is impossible to estimate the numbers of people who have been able to enforce their legal rights when it might otherwise have been impossible for them to do so. Since legal aid was extended to criminal cases in 1964, there have also been countless people who properly secured their liberty because legal aid allowed them access to able and experienced defence solicitors. 

The law has developed in new and unimagined ways since the 1940s. The weight of burgeoning legislation imposing new obligations on the UK’s citizens means that the availability of legal aid has become more and more important. I am sure the lawmakers who felt legal aid was an essential service would be astonished at its scope today, and its budget, but I am also sure they would be immensely proud that the principle they enshrined in statute is still available today. It is important to pay tribute to those solicitors and others who have provided legal services with the benefit of legal aid, and to recognise the excellent and important work they have done and continue to do. It is also right to mention those who have administered legal aid – the Society itself, through its local legal aid committees, and then the Scottish Legal Aid Board. It is a formidable undertaking to ensure that public funds are properly expended to meet the purpose for which they are intended. It is important that everyone involved continues to work together to ensure the continued availability and success of this vital source of assistance to those who need it.

A final word

Thanks to those of you who have contacted me with suggestions about improvements we can try at the Society. Keep them coming. See you in September. 

The Author

John Mulholland is President of the Law Society of Scotland – Twitter: @JohnMMulholland

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