Concern has been expressed by the Law Society of Scotland at the latest annual report of the Scottish Legal Aid Board, which shows a further overall fall in legal aid spending.
Published on Friday (click here for report), the Board's annual report for 2016-17 shows a fall of £2.1m in spending for the year to 31 March 2017, from £137.8m to £135.7m.
The fall was mainly due to a fall in civil legal aid spending from £34.16m to £30.72m. Civil advice and assistance and ABWOR, and summary criminal legal aid were all also slightly down, but solemn criminal legal aid spending rose from £36.34m to £37.46m. Children's legal assistance rose from £5.1m to £5.4m, but grant funding by SLAB fell from £7.8m to £6.26m.
Society President Graham Matthews warned that research to be published by the Society later this month would support the view that spending on legal advice at an early stage avoided increased public spending later on.
He commented: “We are fortunate in Scotland that there is no upper limit and those who are eligible can apply for legal aid funds, and we, alongside the profession, will continue to work with SLAB on simplifying and streamlining the legal aid system and making best use of technology to assist solicitors and their clients. Having an efficient and effective legal aid system is a key factor in ensuring we have an effective justice system as a whole.
“It remains a major concern however, that there has been another drop in expenditure over the past year. While we fully understand that public funding remains an issue, the social, health and emotional cost, as well as the increased financial outlay, of leaving these unresolved is just too high a price to pay. We have recently undertaken research into the social return on investment offered by legal aid and early intervention in Scotland and are due to publish the results later this month. Initial findings support previous research carried out some years ago in England & Wales, that providing legal advice at an early stage reduces increased public spend further down the line when situations become more complex and costly to resolve.
“Members of the public are right to expect an efficient service which works to resolve legal problems quickly and effectively. However we don’t believe the drop in legal aid spending correlates with a drop in legal need. The continued lack of investment is eroding access to justice for communities across Scotland and we remain concerned about people’s ability to access publicly funded legal advice and services in their local communities, particularly for those outwith the main urban areas.”
Mr Matthews added: “The independent legal aid review currently taking place provides an important opportunity to look at how we can improve the system to ensure it works for all those who need it. It’s important that people can access the legal advice they need, when and where they need it, regardless of their status or financial circumstances, and that solicitors who provide legal aid funded services in towns and cities across the country can continue to afford to provide this vital service.”