A new evidence-based fee review system is essential to ensure the future sustainability of legal aid in Scotland, according to the Law Society of Scotland.
Responding to the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s annual report and the Scottish Government’s draft Budget, both published this month, the Society said it was "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 new system to underpin "this vital public service".
The Scottish Government announced it would open a consultation next year over how the system would operate, with the 3% increase, effective from 1 April 2019, operating to preserve the position of legal aid lawyers meantime.
However the SLAB annual report for 2017-18 revealed a drop of more than £11m, or 8%, in total legal aid spending compared with the previous year, largely due to a fall in the number of criminal prosecutions, and the Society is concerned at the risk of legal aid "deserts" – areas where people who need advice are unable to find a legal aid lawyer – as more legal firms find it uneconomic to offer legally aided work.
Society President Alison Atack commented: "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."
She added: "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."