Increased spending on justice announced in the Scottish budget yesterday will not benefit the legal aid sector, the Law Society of Scotland warned last night.
Responsing to Finance Secretary Derek Mackay's budget statement, Society President Eilidh Wiseman said the Society was "pleased to see the slight increase in investment" in the justice sector, but added: "The reality, however, is that much of this has been allocated to the police and fire service, which will mean another challenging year for other areas of the justice sector.
“The proposed budget for legal aid has seen a slight decrease from £136.9m to £135.2m. This is a cause for concern given the expected spend for this year is £138.4m."
She added: “We are pleased to see that the Scottish Government remains committed to the principle of legal aid funding being demand led and ensuring the necessary money is available, whatever budget is set now. However this does not dispel our concerns around the sustainability of the current legal aid system. In particular, current rates of payment for legal aid work risk making the provision of legal services to some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, simply uneconomical. We already know that gaps are developing in the provision of legal aid in parts of Scotland and we have to work hard to stop these gaps from growing.
“The Government has made clear its intention to conduct a full review of the legal aid system in the new year. We strongly welcome this and look forward to discussing our ideas and suggested reforms which we believe will help ensure people access the legal advice and services they need, where and when they need them.”
For income tax payers, the main points of Mr Mackay's statement were that the rates and thresholds will remain unchanged for 2017-18, subject to changes in the personal allowance announced in the UK budget. This means that the higher rate band of 40p will continue to apply above £43,430 of taxable income, compared with the increased threshold of £45,000 previously announced for the rest of the UK. However the figure will be adjusted for inflation in subsequent years.
The Cabinet Secretary pledged £47m to mitigate the effects of the "bedroom tax", which he planned to "abolish" at the earliest opportunity.
The business rates poundage will be reduced by 3.7% to 46.6p, and 100,000 properties will be exempt from business rates under the small business bonus scheme by increasing the 100% relief threshold to £15,000.
Local authorities and opposition parties have attacked Mr Mackay's claim that an additional £240m was being provided for local services, pointing out that although extra money was being provided direct to schools and to social care services, core local government funding was being cut – and part of the new money was to fund the national living wage.