After calling for an urgent overhaul of Scotland’s legal aid system, the Law Society of Scotland has welcomed today’s report by Martyn Evans which says Scotland needs to ‘rethink legal aid’ and needs a ‘fundamentally new approach’.

Graham Matthews, President of the Law Society of Scotland said: “Martyn Evans’s report is no-nonsense, common sense. We strongly endorse his call to maintain the scope of legal aid, simplify the system and reinvest any savings to ensure access to justice for members of the public. His recommendation of an independent evidence-based pay review with a commitment to regular reviews, offers a solution to the current issue of providing fair and sustainable fees for hard-working solicitors providing legal aid work.”

The report Rethinking Legal Aid, An Independent Strategic Review recognises the importance and value of legal aid in helping people resolve legal issues. It also acknowledges the need for change to ensure that it continues to work effectively for those who need it. The review sets out six overarching aims to help ensure that Scotland has a fair, cost-effective legal aid system which allows people to access the legal advice and service they need, when and where they need it. These are:

  • Place user voice and interest at the centre
  • Maintain scope but simplify
  • Support and develop effective delivery model
  • Create fair and sustainable payments and fees
  • Invest in service improvement and technological innovation
  • Establishing effective oversight

Graham Matthews continued: “The report recognises the importance and value of legal aid in ensuring people across Scotland are able to access the legal advice they need regardless of their financial situation or status in society.

“Scotland’s uncapped legal aid system means that anyone who is eligible can receive legal aid. We want to ensure that we retain a system that we can be proud of and which serves the public in years to come.

“Solicitors work across the length and breadth of Scotland and help to ensure people in their local communities, including some of the most vulnerable in our society, can access the legal advice they need on a range of issues. They provide advice and support, often during some of the most difficult periods in people’s lives.  They deliver life-changing assistance whether that’s resolving a housing dispute such as unlawful eviction, or a family matter involving child custody or defending a criminal charge.

“The report also recognises the real need to simplify the legal aid system. The current system is incredibly complex and bureaucratic, which is often confusing for members of the public while placing a substantial administrative burden on legal aid solicitors. In his report, Martyn Evans has identified a number of key issues affecting legal practitioners.  His suggestions to improve the current system, such as advanced payments being made to assist the profession’s cash flow and access to justice by providing flexibility to pay higher fees in certain geographical areas or for specific areas of law, are to be welcomed.

The Law Society has also strongly welcomed the recommendation to introduce an independent review system of legal aid fees.

Graham Matthews said: “While today’s report has not called for any increase to the overall budget for legal aid, it clearly recognises that there is an urgent need to conduct regular, independent fee reviews, and a priority for criminal legal aid. We would very much welcome an evidence-based approach to setting fee levels and putting in place regular reviews to replace the current piecemeal approach.

“We also recognise the need, as highlighted in the report, for better planning across the courts system and increased involvement from all the parties involved.

“Mr Evans has also mooted replacing the Scottish Legal Aid Board with an alternative organisation which is responsible for legal aid policy as well as administering the legal aid system.  We can see the appeal of introducing more of an arm’s length approach to legal aid provision and introducing an organisation with increased responsibility for making policy decisions. However we would have to be sure that this would bring tangible benefits.

“Overall there is much to support in this report.  Once we have fully digested the finer detail of the report, we will respond to the Scottish Government and work closely with the Scottish Legal Aid Board and others working in the justice sector to carefully consider how some of the recommendations can be delivered on a practical level.

“Ultimately it is essential that legal aid works for all those who need it.”

Annabelle Ewing, Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, announced an independent review of the legal aid system in Scotland on 1 February 2017. The Rethinking Legal Aid review  is available to read on the Scottish Government website.

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