The provision and reform of legal aid stirs passions and opinions among solicitors throughout the country – as I was reminded during a whistle-stop tour of common rooms from Inverness in the north to Dumfries in the south, and many points in between. But while views were strongly held, it was also interesting to hear how perspectives and priorities varied from place to place.
But before I explain more, a bit of background. The purpose of the series of drop-in visits was to introduce myself as the member of Society staff responsible for leading on criminal legal aid issues. Appointed last year after carrying out similar work voluntarily while in private practice, I was keen to introduce myself to as many colleagues as possible, while also fostering face-to-face dialogue between the Society’s staff and busy practitioners. Our electronic communications have improved greatly, but there is always room for the personal touch.
Thankfully, I was cordially welcomed (in most places, and where discussions took place, it was generally agreed the visits were worthwhile and would merit repeating. The topics covered were wide and varied, although there were some recurring themes. Not surprisingly, contracting featured heavily, though there was no one settled view. Some expressed vehement, outright opposition but many – perhaps with a heavy dose of cynicism and a sprinkle of realism – were content to wait and see what the formal consultation paper brings.
The timing of the introduction of contributions was a regularly asked question. Originally, it was believed they would arrive at the beginning of November. However, as many of you will know, that has now been put back to the first quarter of 2014. Another issue raised was the possibility of firms seeking a business advantage by advertising a policy of not collecting properly assessed contributions, a practice that was universally regarded by those who spoke about it as undesirable. I reassured them that the Society is conscious of the issue, which already features on the agenda of a working group on which I sit. That work should reach a conclusion later this year, so watch this space!
A number of practitioners, from different parts of the country, mentioned problems with COPFS, particularly in summary matters. They expressed concern that the benefits of summary justice reform were therefore being frustrated. All points raised were taken on board and will be considered further in the weeks ahead.
All in all, it was clear that considerable common ground exists among legal aid solicitors around the country, and between the Society and the members we represent. However, it is also apparent that the Society needs to work hard to improve working relationships in a number of areas. I intend to play my part in doing just that.
So, later this year or early next, I intend to revisit some of these locations and call in at a number of new venues. If you would like me to drop in to your common room, just let me know at email@example.com. I hope to see many of you soon, and remember – we are here and ready to help. You only have to ask.Oliver Adair is the Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Practitioner Lead. You can keep up to date with the Society’s legal aid work by joining the LinkedIn group and following them on Twitter: @lawscot