Legal aid rates need to return in real terms to pre-austerity levels to secure the viability of the sector and the post-COVID court recovery programme, solicitors have told the Scottish Government.
In a joint letter to Ash Regan, Minister for Community Safety, the Law Society of Scotland and the Scottish Solicitors' Bar Association have set out the "urgent action" they believe must be taken to secure the future of the legal aid system. It comes in response to a letter from Ms Regan on 1 November in which she invited the two bodies to set out the specific reforms they believe to be needed.
Pointing out that "the current crisis is a generation in the making", the letter, signed by the respective Presidents Ken Dalling and Julia McPartlin, calls for an increase in fees calculated by the impact of inflation through the "generational underfunding" of legal aid. Examples include:
- a sheriff court summary fee of £900 (including disposal fee), restoring the 1999 level in real terms;
- sheriff summary trial fees of £200 for day 1, £300 for day 2 and £500 for any subsequent days;
- summary deferred sentences at £50 per legal aid certificate, without the need to apply for an increase;
- the full fee for all summary complaints except for s 27(1)(a) (failure to appear in court), which should be paid half rate.
Solemn reforms would be discussed in more detail in negotiations. Commensurate increases, which the letter suggests should amount to 50%, are needed for civil and children's work.
Big enhancements are also needed for out-of-hours work, given the "extremely challenging" increase in workloads to tackle the current backlog of cases.
Increases in fees where there is an early plea of guilty in a solemn case should not be funded by savings elsewhere in the system, which has been the Government's approach to date.
Any new fee system put in place should retain its value in line with inflation, "and to reflect any additional costs incurred by the sector in the future". The letter references the recent report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on legal aid in England & Wales, which called for the restoration of 2011 levels there.
"We have outlined the majority of these measures to you or to your officials previously, though remain willing to engage around the detail of these", the letter concludes.