The fall in legal aid spending reported today does not correlate with a drop in need, the Law Society of Scotland has said.
The Society was responding to the publication of the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s annual report for 2018-19, which shows a further overall drop in legal aid spending in the past year from £124.5 to £123.8m. (Click here for report.)
Describing legal aid as a "vital public service", Society President John Mulholland commented: "While it is positive to see a rise in spending on civil legal aid in Scotland, we don’t believe the overall drop in legal aid spending this year correlates with a drop in legal need. We remain concerned that a continued lack of investment is eroding access to justice for communities across Scotland. It remains the case that fewer law firms in our towns and cities can afford to take on legal aid cases, which can be highly complex and time-consuming, at the current fee rates.
"Building a fairer and simpler legal aid system is essential and in our recent response to the Scottish Government consultation on legal aid reform, we highlighted the importance of making the legal aid system more efficient and easier to navigate for members of the public and solicitors alike.
"We were pleased to see the Government’s proposals included developing simpler systems and a coordinated approach to outlays. The increasing proportion of expenditure on outlays, such as sheriff officer and expert fees, is a concern. For civil legal aid, while fees to solicitors have reduced by 8% since 2014-15, fees for outlays have increased by 11%. We have consistently highlighted the need to reform the way in which these outlays are treated. This would not require new legislation and should be taken forward as soon as possible."
He added: "We recognise that SLAB has taken steps to improve its processes, but we continue to have concerns around the sustainability of funding over the long term, which will be critical to the success of any future reforms. We will continue to work with SLAB on simplifying and streamlining the legal aid system and making best use of technology. Having an efficient and effective legal aid system is a key factor in ensuring we have an effective justice system that serves the Scottish public well."
For the Faculty of Advocates, Vice Dean Angela Grahame QC said: "Legal aid is a fundamental pillar of ensuring access to justice. The ongoing commitment by the Scottish Government to the scope of legal aid in Scotland is reassuring. The Faculty is fully engaged with the review of legal aid, and individual members will continue to commit their talents to those who are most in need of legal advice and representation in the civil and criminal courts."