Defence solicitors and bar associations across Scotland have declared their refusal to take part in the planned weekend custody courts to deal with an expected spike in arrests during the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow.
Bar associations in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Hamilton, Alloa and Falkirk have voted to boycott the courts, in protest at the Scottish Government's failure to improve legal aid rates or safeguard the future of the defence bar, which they say is losing members weekly as the prosecution service recruits.
The associations reached their position in a series of meetings yesterday on proposals received from ministers and the Scottish Legal Aid Board last Wednesday evening. Writing in reply to explain the Glasgow Bar Association's decision, its President Fiona McKinnon said an "overwhelming" number of members who had responded to a survey had voted to opt out of the duty plan for COP26 and attending the weekend custody courts, "again imposed without consultation with us, nor with any thought to an enhanced payment package to represent our own clients for the conference period".
"It cannot be right that there is a prioritisation of case processing and funding for COP26 cases and not for all others who will be arrested and detained during this period of substantial disruption to the rule of law in Scotland", she wrote. "This is manifestly contrary to the interests of justice and to an individual’s human rights."
She asserted that without a commitment to a substantial increase in legal aid rates beyond the interim 5% promised next March pending an overhaul of the legal aid system, and to resolve the dispute which has already led to a boycott of custody courts arranged for public holidays, the GBA would not recommend that its members consider participating in the COP26 arrangements.
Similarly the Edinburgh Bar Association criticised the "ongoing lack of clarity as to the practicalities of the running of the courts" over the expected increase in arrests, which was "absolutely stunning" given that the conference was originally scheduled for last year. In a statement on its website the EBA voiced its disappointment that "in spite of our Association having withdrawn from the Police Station Duty scheme in 2017, it was still expected that we would accede to assisting with this for the duration of COP26. At no time did we express any willingness or intention to do so". It could not engage "in any good conscience" in the proposed duty solicitor scheme "at a time whereby we are stretched beyond capacity on a daily basis and retain professional obligations which must be upheld".
It added: "This is not a decision taken lightly, but we hope it serves as an indicator of what will continue to happen with the criminal justice system if the alarming inequality of arms is not addressed."
The Aberdeen Bar Association stated that against a background of "decades of underfunding... leaving a profession that is now quite literally dying out", it should come as no surprise that its members, along with others, "are neither able nor inclined to turn our backs on our existing professional commitments to take part in the proposed COP26 duty scheme".
Tweeting its support, the Scottish Solicitors' Bar Association said it was "fully behind" associations which had voted to boycott the extra courts "imposed on the profession without consultation".
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "We have been engaging with the legal profession on an enhanced package of legal aid fees during the period of the COP26 conference and have responded positively to their proposals. We will continue to consider matters that they raise ahead of the conference."