The impact of spending cuts and court delays are reflected in a significant drop in legal aid expenditure, the Law Society of Scotland has said today, Friday, 18 December.
The Law Society has responded to the publication of the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s (SLAB) annual report 2015 which shows a drop of eight percent for the overall legal aid expenditure in 2014-15 from the previous year, to £138.6 million.
Ian Moir, co-convener of the Law Society’s legal aid committee said: “The fall in expenditure has cast a spotlight on delays and underfunding. The eight percent drop represents around a £12 million reduction from the previous year. SLAB has put this down to a fall in demand and to a delay in getting cases to progress to conclusion. However, the impact of the cuts across the justice sector, including the legal aid budget, will also be a significant factor in the fall in expenditure.
“SLAB’s annual report follows the Scottish Government’s draft budget announcement earlier this week which included a £10 million cut in the legal aid budget for 2016-17. This confirms that the substantial savings made in legal aid in recent years has not changed the Government’s drive to further reduce spending on legal aid in future. We don’t believe the figures are realistic and cannot see how this further reduction can be achieved without seriously damaging both access to justice and the justice system.
“Members of the pubic quite rightly expect an efficient service which works to resolve legal problems quickly and effectively. Government cost cutting in recent years has resulted in operational and structural problems that affect solicitors and clients. Accountability, fairness and justice lie at the very heart of effective governance, and will be essential in re-establishing the trust that is being eroded in our courts and legal aid system.”
A recent Audit Scotland report highlighted that reducing budgets and more complex criminal cases are putting pressure on Scotland's sheriff court system. The report found fewer cases are concluding within the 26-week performance target, the average time for cases to conclude risen, and a greater proportion of cases are going to trial, which is in part, due to a greater focus on more complex cases involving domestic abuse and historic sexual offences, and a subsequent rise in reporting of these types of crimes.
The Audit Scotland report, published in September, also said that, since 2010/11, the budgets of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and the Scottish Court Service have experienced a more significant reduction than the overall Scottish Government budget.
Mark Thorley, co-convener of the Society’s legal aid committee, said: “We don’t believe that the current system is fit for purpose and, with the ongoing reforms to modernise the wider court and justice system, the time is right for root and branch change. We need to rethink legal aid as a whole and look at where efficiencies can be made and how savings can be reinvested to ensure that people can obtain legal advice when they need it most, regardless of their status or wealth.
“We think it is essential that there is additional investment in legal aid to reverse to the decline we have seen over the years and to ensure matters are dealt with early on, preventing delays and costs elsewhere in the system. That’s why we published a series of recommendations in May this year in our paper Legal Assistance in Scotland – Fit for the 21st century. If implemented, we believe these changes would help streamline legal assistance, reducing complexity and the administrative burden, and allow law firms to be more efficient. This will help generate savings in the wider justice system which can then be reinvested.
“We fully understand that public funding remains an issue for all frontline services, but we believe that with the high prevalence of justice problems, the social, emotional and financial cost of leaving these unresolved is too high a price to pay.
“Our recommendations paper is the result of wide consultation with solicitors and others involved in the justice and advice sectors and we think our proposals will help create a better legal assistance system that provides sustainable access to justice for people across Scotland.”
Notes to editor
The recommendations paper is available to read on the Law Society website. Legal Assistance in Scotland – Fit for the 21st century.
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