Martin Morrow in his opinion column makes a number of valid points, many of which have been made repeatedly by the Society to the Scottish Government, Scottish Legal Aid Board and any others who are prepared to listen.
One clarification which it is important to make is the number of civil legal aid cases which SLAB successfully collect – around 95% of assessed contributions, which of course only makes the argument for central collection all the more compelling.
Also, there has been no declared intention by the Government to provide a PDSO solicitor to every accused who appears without representation as a result of wilful refusal to pay a contribution, and indeed the illogicality of providing such a person with effectively free representation was pointed out by the Society as soon as the suggestion was floated.
The Society has already set up a working group to look at how the marketplace might be regulated should a solicitor based collection system be imposed. The group’s attention is focused on practice rules, although in that area there are legal restrictions within which we must operate. As a temporary or compromise solution, we are also examining the Code of Conduct for Criminal Work to see if that could be a suitable vehicle for control. If any member of the profession wishes to provide input to this process, he/she should feel free to contact me or any member of the legal aid team at the Society. Their contribution would be welcomed.
The problem until now has not been that the Society has failed to make all the arguments, rather that the Government has seemed unwilling to listen. However, as I write we have just met with representatives of both SLAB and the Government, and whilst the main principle of who collects in summary matters remains, the Cabinet Secretary says, “non-negotiable”, the meeting was both businesslike and more positive than others before it. Some progress was made and the Society will continue to press for improvements to the current proposals.
Perhaps Martin’s final prayer – that the Government takes to heart the advice that criminal proceedings will end up costing more due to accused people representing themselves – may be answered, in part at least.Oliver Adair, Legal Aid Officer, Law Society of Scotland