I am writing on behalf of our executive committee to confirm that until further notice, our members who are nominated solicitors will not be attending holiday custody courts.
Last spring, the Lord President confirmed that custody courts would be convened on each court holiday. There was no consultation with the defence. No thought was given to providing enhanced remuneration for defence agents to relinquish their entitlement to such holidays, as is provided to others participating in these courts.
As Vice President and currently as President of the Glasgow Bar Association, I have alerted our justice partners in many meetings to the manifest unfairness of the position defence practitioners have been put in by this chronic underfunding. We no longer have equality of arms and legal aid provision is in crisis. There is an immediate and urgent concern about the prospects of an independent bar unless this terminal decline is reversed as soon as possible.
We have previously highlighted the issue by taking direct action in holiday custody courts, and in the “Gowns down” campaign on 17 May 2021. We have now been advised that there is no reasonable prospect of our concerns being addressed by legislative change until next autumn at the earliest. Court holidays for next year have already been suspended by our sheriff principal.
In light of this, we took a poll of our members. Such is the strength of feeling about this matter that all who responded are in favour of this course of action. This would ordinarily be anathema to us as our raison d’être is to help the most vulnerable in our society. It is clearly symptomatic of decades of underinvestment in the defence and the widening gulf between Crown and defence. Insult has been added to injury by the underspend in the legal aid budget by £21.5 million during the pandemic compared to the reinvestment of £9 million, disastrously implemented by your Resilience Fund and only rescued with the input of Bar Association Presidents and Law Society representatives.
No member who voted was in favour of continuing to work holiday custody courts without achieving pay parity with our justice partners. This unity demonstrates their strongly held beliefs about their treatment by successive Scottish Governments and the apparent lack of respect towards us amongst our justice partners. Until this is resolved, our members will not be participating in any holiday custody courts, unless in their capacity as duty solicitor or to fulfil contractual obligations as PDSO employees. We invite all defence practitioners across Scotland to join us about this issue.
Glasgow Sheriff Court is the flagship court of Scotland. The spotlight of a world stage will soon be upon us because of COP26. The conference has necessitated SCTS planning for three consecutive weeks of Saturday and Sunday courts in Glasgow. Our members will be undertaking 26 consecutive days of custody appearances in addition to their usual workload caused by the court backlog. Again, there was no consultation with us. Until such time as details of funding are resolved, our members cannot make an informed decision about participating in the duty solicitor scheme. A decision is required urgently.
As always, I would be happy to discuss matters further with you and extend an open invite to visit us at Glasgow Sheriff Court.
Fiona McKinnon, President, Glasgow Bar Association
This is an edited version. The full letter is on the GBA website.
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