It should not have come as too much of a surprise that, despite all the sound and fury from the legal profession, up to and including the well attended demonstration outside Holyrood on Tuesday morning, neither the Scottish Government nor its party majority on the Justice Committee (including for this purpose John Finnie MSP, who resigned form the SNP over its changed policy on NATO) was prepared to accept the arguments against solicitors having to collect the soon-to-be-introduced client contributions in summary criminal legal aid.
Nor do we have to look far to see the real reason for the Government (and Scottish Legal Aid Board) not wanting to be left with the burden. Despite Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill stating before the committee, "I think that it would be unworkable for the Board both to assess contributions and collect them", he expressed his willingness to discuss a suggestion that the fee per case could come down by £5 in order to fund the cost of collection by SLAB. And it seems that if the PDSO is unable to collect a contribution in a case in which it is acting, SLAB will step in. Not exactly a level playing field, and a move likely to add to the costs of running the PDSO as compared with private practice.
It was simple enough for Mr MacAskill to make the point that collecting fees from clients is a matter of routine for legal firms – without adding that this does not usually involve those hovering around the poverty line. Indeed, the issue having been raised in committee, the Law Society of Scotland may find that the agenda for its next talks with the Justice Secretary includes the collection of civil legal aid contributions as well. (How that would work alongside the clawback provisions may be an interesting question.)
So what of the prospects for industrial action, said to be unavoidable following the stage 2 outcome? As always, it will be difficult for lawyers to win public support. "Solicitors refuse to collect own fees" is not a banner with which to lead a revolution. Only if the direct pressure on the court system is such that the Government takes fright, is any climbdown likely. Co-ordinated action by the profession has on occasion produced results. In this instance it is a safe prediction, given the Government's insistence that budgets are budgets, that any gains would simply be offset by some other savings within the system.