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Scottish legal aid system ‘needs urgent overhaul’

22 February 2017 | tagged News release

People in Scotland relying on legal aid to help them may soon be unable to find a solicitor because many law firms simply can’t afford to carry out legal aid work. These are the findings of a new independent report, published today, 22 February.

The report The Financial Health of Legal Aid Firms in Scotland is the first of its kind and presents a picture of a legal aid system under increasing pressure. The independent research, carried out by Otterburn Legal Consulting for the Law Society of Scotland, has shown that some of Scotland’s smallest legal aid law firms are carrying out legal aid work at a loss and are at serious risk of being unable to offer legal aid work.

Eilidh Wiseman, President of the Law Society of Scotland said: “We are deeply concerned that people relying on legal aid to help them, whether facing unlawful eviction, resolving custody of their children, or defending a criminal charge, may soon be unable to find a legal aid solicitor because sadly many solicitors simply can’t afford to carry out this work.  Every person in Scotland should be able to access the legal advice they need and have equal protection under the law, regardless of financial situation or status in society. The Scottish legal aid system needs an urgent overhaul.”

The research The Financial Health of Legal Aid Firms in Scotland, which had responses from 57 of Scotland’s law firms carrying out legal aid work, also highlighted:

  • Civil legal aid solicitors are only paid for about two thirds of the work they carry out

  • Criminal legal aid solicitors are paid for just three quarters of work they carry out

  • Administrative and financial burden for firms is caused by ‘undue bureaucracy’ and   ‘micro-management’ by the Scottish Legal Aid Board

  • Small law firms offering legal aid (annual fees under £250,000) have difficulty creating a financially viable structure

  • Larger law firms, particularly those with a turnover greater than £1 million, are more viable

  • Firms which do not specialise in legal aid are subsidising their legal aid work with private client fees.

The report comes as the Scottish Government recently announced an independent review of legal aid which will be headed by Martyn Evans, CEO of the Carnegie Trust.

Eilidh Wiseman concluded: “Solicitors are highly skilled professionals and have a natural passion to help people and solve problems but excessive legal aid red tape is an obstacle preventing some solicitors from doing their job. We will work with the Scottish Government and the newly created legal aid review group to ensure Scotland’s legal aid system delivers for those who depend upon it.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

You can view the full report The Financial Health of Legal Aid Firms in Scotland at www.lawscot.org.uk/legalaidreport

Legal aid as we know it was introduced in Scotland in 1950 for civil cases with criminal proceedings being included in 1964. This paved the way for access to justice for the most vulnerable in society.

A total of 57 firms from across Scotland took part in the research on the financial health of legal aid, with their collective fees representing 15% of legal aid spend for 2014-15. A third of Scotland’s larger specialist legal aid firms were among the respondents.

The Law Society of Scotland’s ‘Find a Solicitor’ web tool is used over 600 times a month by people searching for a Scottish legal aid solicitor. www.lawscot.org.uk/findasolicitor

Two Law Society members, Lindsey McPhie, solicitor advocate and immediate past president of the Glasgow Bar Association, and Jackie McRae, a registered social worker, accredited specialist solicitor in family law and a former member of the Law Society’s Council, will represent the solicitor profession on the legal aid review group recently set up by the Scottish Government.

The Law Society of Scotland published a series of recommendations for reforming the legal aid system in its 2015 paper Legal Assistance in Scotland – Fit for the 21st Century.

Researchers
The financial health of legal aid firms in Scotland research project was carried out by Andrew Otterburn and Vicky Ling, with technical support from consulting actuary Dr John Pollock. Andrew Otterburn and Vicky Ling are independent law firm management consultants with particular experience of undertaking financial research regarding legal aid firms on behalf of the Law Society of England and Wales and other organisations.

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