A welcome for the call for an evidence-led review of legal aid fees, in the independent review of legal aid published today, has been given by the Law Society of Scotland in its initial response to the report.
The review, under Martyn Evans, fails to support calls for an immediate overall increase in legal aid fees, claiming a lack of evidence to justify such a rise, but proposes a further review, to the outcome of which both Government and the legal profession would have to take the "very significant risk" of committing in advance. (Click here for news report.)
Having previously called for an urgent overhaul of Scotland’s legal aid system, the Society welcomed the report's approach of calling for a fundamentally new approach to legal aid.
Graham Matthews, President of the Society, commented: "Martyn Evans’s report is no-nonsense, common sense. We strongly endorse his call to maintain the scope of legal aid, simplify the system and reinvest any savings to ensure access to justice for members of the public. His recommendation of an independent evidence-based pay review with a commitment to regular reviews, offers a solution to the current issue of providing fair and sustainable fees for hardworking solicitors providing legal aid work."
He added: "While today’s report has not called for any increase to the overall budget for legal aid, it clearly recognises that there is an urgent need to conduct regular, independent fee reviews, and a priority for criminal legal aid. We would very much welcome an evidence-based approach to setting fee levels and putting in place regular reviews to replace the current piecemeal approach."
Mr Matthews said the report recognised the importance and value of legal aid in ensuring people were able to access the legal advice they needed, regardless of their financial situation or status in society.
"The report also recognises the real need to simplify the legal aid system", he continued. "The current system is incredibly complex and bureaucratic, which is often confusing for members of the public while placing a substantial administrative burden on legal aid solicitors. In his report, Martyn Evans has identified a number of key issues affecting legal practitioners. His suggestions to improve the current system, such as advanced payments being made to assist the profession’s cash flow and access to justice by providing flexibility to pay higher fees in certain geographical areas or for specific areas of law, are to be welcomed."
On the proposal to replace the Scottish Legal Aid Board with an alternative organisation responsible for legal aid policy as well as administering the legal aid system, the President said the Society could see the appeal of introducing more of an arm’s length approach to legal aid policy and provision, but "we would have to be sure that this would bring tangible benefits".
He concluded: "Overall there is much to support in this report. Once we have fully digested the finer detail of the report, we will respond to the Scottish Government and work closely with the Scottish Legal Aid Board and others working in the justice sector to carefully consider how some of the recommendations can be delivered on a practical level."
Ian Moir and Mark Thorley, co-conveners of the Society's Legal Aid team, have invited responses from solicitors to the report, which can be emailed to them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Angela Grahame QC, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, commented: "Sight must never be lost of the fundamental importance of legal aid, and it is welcome that this review reinforces the scope and the merits of Scotland’s legal aid system.
"The review makes recommendations aimed at driving legal aid towards greater flexibility, but at the same time acknowledges the concerns of those who work hard at providing a service on a daily basis.
"There are opportunities here to be seized by all those engaged in making rights effective in a modern Scotland. The Faculty is keen to play its part in providing legal services of the future, and to work with the Scottish Government, the Law Society of Scotland and the proposed new Scottish Legal Assistance Authority to safeguard the place of legal aid in our country."