Increased investment, less bureaucracy and better use of technology to ensure the long-term sustainability of legal aid have been called for by the Law Society of Scotland in its submission to the independent review of legal aid under Martyn Evans.
In a comprehensive submission, the Society states that the current system is overly complex and bureaucratic, while decades of underinvestment have led to a decline in access to justice for people in communities across Scotland.
Among its proposals are:
- increased funding and a rise in legal aid rates;
- an urgent review of funding for police station work;
- a restructure of criminal legal aid funding and a streamlined payment system;
- simplification of civil legal aid and adoption of a single grant system;
- simplification of children’s legal aid to help applicants;
- increased scope of legal aid work carried out by trainee solicitors; and
- research into the preventive benefits of legal aid.
Society President Graham Matthews commented: “The current system is under immense pressure and there is a growing gap between those who need legal advice and those who can deliver it.
“Legal aid is the basis of social justice and provides equality before the law, ensuring that everyone is able to resolve disputes and legal issues regardless of their social background or financial situation. It gives people the ability to protect their rights, often at the most challenging times in their lives, whether they have been unfairly dismissed from work, unlawfully evicted from their home, resolving custody of their children or defending themselves against a criminal charge.
“We know that early resolution of legal problems can prevent much bigger issues further down the line, before they get more difficult and more expensive to resolve. Unfortunately, under the current system solicitors are finding it increasingly difficult to afford to take on legal aid clients, particularly in civil cases, and run a viable business – with those who do take on legal aid clients effectively unpaid for some of the work they carry out. The result is that it’s becoming increasing difficult for people to access the legal support and advice that they need, especially in rural communities.”
Research published by the Society earlier this year found that civil legal aid solicitors were only paid for two thirds, and criminal legal aid solicitors for three quarters, of the work they actually carry out, with some left with an income below the national living wage.
In its submission the Society also argues that savings brought about by increased efficiency in the legal aid system and better use of technology, should be reinvested into the legal aid system to help ensure its long term sustainability.
Ian Moir, co-convener of the Society’s legal aid committee, said: “We fully understand the current restrictions on public spending. However the decades-long lack of investment in legal aid, alongside the complexity and high level of bureaucracy involved, mean it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a sustainable, high quality legal assistance system.
“Less is spent on legal aid now than two decades ago, with the 2016-17 budget set at £127m compared to £132m in 1994-95, while costs of running a business have risen. In addition some of the criminal legal aid rates paid to solicitors haven’t increased in 25 years, with certain civil rates unchanged for 17 years. This is simply not sustainable and we see an increasing gap between those who can afford legal assistance to resolve a problem and those who can’t, something we believe should be unacceptable in Scotland today.”
Co-convener Mark Thorley added: “We have set out a positive case for change in our submission. Our recommendations would help to streamline the system and make the most of what technology can offer to generate savings which can then be reinvested to ensure the long term future for legal aid. These changes will allow solicitors to run viable businesses offering a range of legal services and help those most in need.”