Scottish lawyers yesterday took strike action in protest at the Scottish Government’s latest refusal to increase funding for legal aid. Members of Edinburgh Bar Association did not attend court, while Glasgow Bar Association limited the numbers of its members attending the Monday custody court.
A request by the Law Society of Scotland for a 50 per cent increase in legal aid fees – which have seen no significant increase in over twenty years – has been met with the usual refusal. Edinburgh Bar Association point out that, despite a three per cent increase in fees across the board in 2018, previous cuts mean that the fixed fee for a summary trial is lower than it was in 1999.
The Association said:
The problems faced by the profession have been growing for decades and have been exacerbated by the Covid 19 pandemic. When lockdown was introduced in March this year, most of the business in the Sheriff Courts ground to a halt. Legal aid practitioners were required to cover urgent business, predominantly custody cases. Like many key workers, we put our health and safety at risk.
Throughout lockdown, there has been a huge reduction in the number of new cases being prosecuted. Consequentially, there has been a decrease in the number of applications for legal aid. This has resulted in a significant saving to the Scottish government in the legal aid budget.
Given that other industries have received specific support to help them through lockdown, we cannot understand why similar consideration has not been given to the legal aid profession. This is particularly hard to fathom as money is readily available as a consequence of the reduction in legal aid spend.
It is a measure of the level of contempt with which we are treated that they do not even see fit to redistribute the saving in the existing legal aid budget to help us at a time of global pandemic. For these reasons, the members of the Edinburgh Bar Association have voted overwhelmingly not to attend court on Monday 30th November 2020.
Amanda Miller, President of the Law Society of Scotland, added:
The frustration being felt by the profession across Scotland is clear and completely understandable. Over recent days, I have seen some legal aid solicitors in tears, fearful of the future and angry at a system which does not seem to care.
This is a group of public servants who have long been forced to work more for less. However, in this most difficult year of COVID-19, they have been critical in keeping Scotland’s justice system working, often risking their own health and wellbeing in the process. The response of too many has been to take this professionalism for granted and the Scottish government’s failure to come forward with any kind of meaningful support package has only made matters worse.
We have repeatedly warned the government about a looming crisis in access to justice. Without extra help, including a significant uplift in fees, businesses risk collapse and solicitors will walk away from doing legal aid work altogether. Worst of all, the people who will lose out are the poorest and most vulnerable in our society who depend on our legal aid system.
There is still a chance for the government to act but it needs to happen quickly.
The Government is, however, prepared to increase fees for solicitors dealing with early guilty pleas. Make of that what you will.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf will this week engage with the legal profession to discuss potential further support”. We can only hope that there will be further support, that it will be immediate, and that it will be meaningful and realistic. Regular readers of this blog will know that we have long recognised the chronic underfunding of criminal legal aid as nothing less than the refusal of access to justice for vulnerable and often defenceless individuals.