The Faculty of Procurators of Dumfries wishes to announce its support of the Edinburgh Bar Association and the Glasgow Bar Association in their opposition to the Scottish Government’s current proposals regarding introduction of a scheme of contributions in criminal legal aid.
The Faculty has no issue with the general principle that, particularly in this day and age of financial austerity, those who can pay something towards their legal expenses should do so. However the Scottish Government’s scheme is fatally flawed.
(1) The level of income accused persons can earn before they become liable to pay contributions towards criminal legal aid and advice and assistance, is far too low.
(2) The amount of the contributions is far too high and in many summary cases can easily exceed the total value of the legal aid payment in respect of that case.* Many people on low and modest incomes will therefore, effectively, be removed from any form of state assistance with the legal expenses they will incur in defending themselves from allegations of crime brought against them by that state.
(3) Individual firms are to be made responsible for collecting those contributions (rather than being collected by the Scottish Legal Aid Board as is done in civil legal aid cases), thus placing yet another unnecessary administrative burden (and therefore cost) on solicitors while they are supposed to be defending the person from whom they are supposed to collect money.
(4) Finally, it has been suggested by the Scottish Government and their colleagues in the Scottish Legal Aid Board that, if a private firm cannot collect a contribution and withdraws from acting as a result, the Scottish Government’s own lawyers in the Public Defence Solicitors Organisation will cover the case. They, however, will not have to worry about collecting contributions. The Scottish Legal Aid Board have said they will be willing to recover the contribution from clients of the PDSO. Whether they will insist on doing so in the case of those who refuse to pay, however, has not been clarified. If they do not, this gives a Government-funded and backed organisation an unfair, anti-competitive and illegal advantage over the private firms against whom they compete: potentially, a client who does not want to pay their solicitor simply has to refuse to pay, and the Government will represent them anyway, without charging the client the fee the Government makes the private solicitor charge.
The Scottish Government, through the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, has said that these proposals will not affect access to justice. This remark either demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of real life, or is simply untrue and should be recognised as such by a Cabinet Secretary who claims to know about legal practice. The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee has criticised the proposals and asked the Scottish Government to reconsider its proposals because of their serious concerns about access to justice for the citizens of Scotland. The Scottish Government is now telling the profession that it has no intention of changing any of these points.
In the absence of any sensible engagement or debate, the question has to arise as to whether the Scottish Government is ever going to listen to anything other than direct action. For that reason, the Faculty of Procurators of Dumfries supports of the Edinburgh Bar Association and the Glasgow Bar Association in their decisions to take industrial action and, should the Scottish Government continue on its current course against the interests of the citizens of Scotland, this Faculty will decide democratically what specific action it will take.Ranald Lindsay, Dean, Faculty of Procurators of Dumfriesshire
* For example, a person with a disposable income of £105 per week, currently entitled to free help would have to pay:
- £67.20 pleading guilty in the JP Court,
- £72.25 pleading not guilty in the JP Court,
- £102.50 pleading guilty in the Sheriff Court,
- £109.20 pleading not guilty in the Sheriff Court.
- £363.20 pleading guilty in the JP Court,
- £401.00 pleading not guilty in the JP Court,
- £590.00 pleading guilty in the Sheriff Court,
- £629.20 pleading not guilty in the Sheriff Court.
A person with a disposable income of £175 per week, currently obliged to pay £70 towards their legal costs in some cases would have to pay
These amounts would have to be restricted to the whole amount payable to their solicitor, thus persons with this income would not receive any help from the Scottish Legal Aid Board.