Law Society comment on Scottish Legal Aid Board annual report

Responding to the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s annual report and the Scottish Government’s draft Budget, both published this month, the Law Society is pleased with the commitment to a 3% increase in both civil and criminal legal aid rates announced by Ministers in the short term but stressed the need for the implementation of a new evidence-based review system to ensure the sustainable future of this vital public service.

Law Society of Scotland President Alison Atack said: “We know that for every pound invested in legal aid, the overall benefit to the public purse is substantially more and that it benefits Scotland’s health, wealth and happiness. So it is essential that we have a legal aid system that ensures people across Scotland can access the legal advice they need, regardless of their financial situation or status in society, to resolve their legal issues, and that solicitors are fairly paid for the work they do in our communities across the country.

“The commitment to a 3% fee increase across the board as an interim measure is a step in the right direction while the longer-term future of the system is considered. However, this short-term rise cannot be seen as a long-term solution as it will not solve the problems we see in the system. We need to see the implementation of a new evidence-based review system as an urgent priority to ensure the future sustainability of legal aid.

“Having a widespread, diverse legal aid profession is important to allow individuals across Scotland to have access to a choice of local, independent experts to assist them at difficult times in their lives. Our legal aid system should support a range of different service providers to maintain the judicare system that best serves access to justice and the rule of law in Scotland.

“While case volumes may be going down overall, we have seen an increase in more complex cases which require more work, including domestic abuse and historic sexual abuse cases. The administrative burden also continues to increase for solicitors taking on legal aid work, including changing court procedures or requirements that the legal aid system does not always keep up with. This means much work carried out by solicitors on legal aid funded cases remains unpaid.

“What is needed is for us all to work together on simplification of the legal aid system so that it effectively remunerates those solicitors undertaking legal aid work by providing faster and more certain payment, while reducing the administrative burden and facilitating early resolution of civil and criminal cases. We will continue to engage positively with the Scottish Government, the Scottish Legal Aid Board and other stakeholders to bring forward reforms to ensure Scotland’s legal system works for and is accessible to all those who depend on it.”

The independent report Social Return on Investment on Legal Aid, commissioned by the Law Society from research firm Rocket Science and published in November 2017, considered the SROI of legal aid in criminal law, housing law and family law and found a return for every £1 spent of £5, £5 and £11 respectively.