Publicly funded legal assistance cost Scottish taxpayers £123.7m in 2018-19, down from £124.4m in the previous year, according to the annual report of the Scottish Legal Aid Board, published today.
SLAB said the £0.7m decrease masked some significant changes, such as the continuing fall in non-jury criminal legal aid applications, down by a further 5,500 on 2017-18 with costs down £2.1m to £25.05m.
The uptake of criminal legal aid for jury cases on the other hand increased, with 950 more applications received than in the previous year, though the longer timescale for jury cases means it will take some time for the rise in demand to result in increased expenditure. Solemn criminal legal aid spending was up from £29.8m to £30.3m; criminal advice and assistance/ABWOR rose from nearly £12.1m to nearly £12.7m; but criminal appeal costs fell by £30,000 to £1.187m. The Public Defence Solicitors' Office cost £11,000 more at £2.251m; duty scheme costs fell from £826,000 to £713,000 while the solicitor contact line cost £1.017m, up from £658,000.
Civil legal aid cost £1m more at £31.38m, but spending on advice and assistance/ABWOR, the Civil Legal Assistance Office and grant funding were all slightly down. Children's legal assistance dipped from £5.37m to £5.26m, which SLAB said was due to lower average costs rather than fewer cases.
The year end came just ahead of the 3% across-the-board rise in fees paid under legal aid, from 1 April 2019.
There were 202,000 grants of legal assistance made in 2018-19.
During the year SLAB continued an internal change programme which it says is improving the way the current legal aid system operates and lays groundwork for any future reforms. It now publishes quarterly rather than annual information about its new approach to measuring performance, and is taking regular micro surveys of solicitors to complement its fuller periodic surveys.
It also delivered the last significant phase of its online accounts products and has worked with legal firms to identify further improvements to the usability and functionality of the system. SLAB's administration spend fell from £12.025m to £11.669m.
Colin Lancaster, SLAB’s chief executive, said the changes highlighted the importance of the Scottish Government’s Expert Payment Advisory Panel and its recent consultation into what sort of legal aid system Scotland should have for the future.
"Publicly funded legal aid services assist around 2% of the Scottish population each year. This means that our existing legal aid system helps many thousands of people each year deal with a wide range of legal problems", he commented.
"The important work that solicitors and advocates do for each individual they assist has a significant positive impact not only for their clients but also for the wider justice system and Scottish society."
Referring to the Government’s consultation, which asks whether and how legal aid should be reshaped into a user focused public service, he added: "Our current mixed model legal aid system has considerable strengths on which to build. It combines untargeted, privately provided casework with targeted services that can be directed at areas that are less well served or which funders want to prioritise.
"If the Scottish Government wish to move towards more of a public service model, the current mixed model could be strengthened so that the public could rely on each part working more closely together in a complementary way.
"Then people could draw on the most appropriate help and be referred, signposted or move between different types of providers and services as suits their needs."