The Law Society of Scotland has highlighted the importance of making the legal aid system easier to navigate for members of the public and solicitors, and reiterated concerns about the sustainability of funding for the service as part of the response to a Scottish Government consultation on legal aid reform.
The Scottish Government launched the consultation following the 2018 Rethinking Legal Aid review led by Martyn Evans and has sought views on how access to legal aid could be improved to make it more flexible and reduce complexity, as well as how to maintain and strengthen scope.
However, the consultation did not include the issue of funding, which has led to declining numbers of legal aid firms and practitioners in recent years.
Commenting on the consultation response, Mark Thorley, Co-convener (civil) of the Law Society of Scotland’s Legal Aid Committee said, “The consultation is welcome as it provides the opportunity to create a fairer and simpler legal aid system and we support many of the proposals put forward, including enhancing the user voice in the legal aid system, developing simpler systems and a coordinated approach to outlays.
“We have highlighted the importance of having a strong network of legal aid firms and practitioners across the country who can assist in a wide range of areas of law including helping people deal with family separation, child custody, housing, employment, immigration and more. One of the great strengths of the current legal aid scheme is that it accesses the network of solicitors across Scotland, with the capacity to match the breadth of the scope of legal issues, however the number of legal aid providers is rapidly declining, mainly due to the bureaucracy and complexity of the system and the unsustainability of how the legal aid system is funded.
“Consideration of fees did not form part of the consultation, instead being part of the work taken forward by the expert fee panel, but our consultation response reiterates our concerns around the sustainability of funding, which will be critical to the success of any legal aid reform.”
Ian Moir, Co-convener (criminal) of the Law Society of Scotland’s Legal Aid Committee said, “Reforming the legal aid system so it works better for everyone in the legal aid sector is vital, and it is also important for those considering entering the profession too. As set out in our consultation response, access to justice is a fundamental right with legal aid crucial in providing that access to people who are otherwise unable to afford it. The lack of means should not prevent a person from enforcing their rights and legal aid provides access to justice across Scotland, protecting human rights and helping people during some of the most difficult periods in their lives.
“The current legal aid system is complex and difficult to navigate, both for solicitors and members of the public. Present arrangements do not best serve the purposes of the legal aid system and simplification is essential. Improvements including abolishing the categories and creating a single continuous grant of legal aid would make the system easier to navigate and more able to adapt to the individual needs and circumstances of clients and solicitors, resulting in less delay and confusion.
“We are hopeful this consultation will contribute towards the introduction of simpler and fairer legal aid system that benefits clients and solicitors and await the Scottish Government response with interest.”
You can read the full consultation response here.