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Law Society to fight legal aid cuts on ‘access to justice’ ticket as Scots struggle to find law firms handling legal aid work

31 May

SLAB_logoThe Scottish Legal Aid Board has often been the cash cow of the legal profession. LEGAL AID – Described by some as a state funded route to justice for those who cannot afford it, however, in reality something which has been grossly abused by many law firms & solicitors over the years who have neither represented the interests of their clients nor given those who cannot afford a solicitor an effective route to our courts, is unsurprisingly facing huge cuts in its budget as the recession looms large over the UK’s public finances.

While talk of cuts to legal aid may seem an unimportant subject these days, since many law firms in Scotland claim to have given up legal aid work altogether, the threat of a few thousand pounds less in the pockets of solicitors is apparently still enough to galvanise the Law Society into its well worn call for unity among its members to ensure any cuts to the legal aid budget in Scotland are as minimal as possible.

Law Society of ScotlandLaw Society issues legal aid plea over expected cuts. Cue the expected, if comical Press Release from the Law Society of Scotland, who typically raise the threat of a “damaging effect on access to justice” if there are significant cuts to Scotland’s legal aid budget. Doubtless we can expect the threat of the oh-so-damaging ‘lightning strikes’ at Scotland’s Sheriff courts, principally in the Glasgow area where solicitors will yet again walk out, leaving criminal cases clogging up the system due to lack of legal representation etc just as has happened in the past .. and just as has happened in the past, there will be compromises and emergency payments from the Scottish Government & Westminster to soothe the wallets minds of our esteemed legal profession across the country …

An official from a consumer organisation today claimed that with so many law firms across Scotland giving up legal aid work it was difficult enough for consumers to find a solicitor willing to take on a case with legal aid funding.

He said : “It is all very well for the Law Society to ask its members to come together to fight legal aid cuts but what has the Society said about its many member firms who have given legal aid work up, making it impossible for many consumers to find a solicitor in their area who will take on a case with legal aid funding.”

He continued : “The problem here is that legal aid is only payable to solicitors, and the Law Society want it keep it that way, blocking anyone else from coming into the legal services market who might take legal aid cases. Since many law firms have or are giving up legal aid work, its time to break open the monopoly over legal aid payments, to ensure consumers across Scotland can find a legal services provider who will undertake legal aid work if Law Society member firms don’t offer it.”

One client who reported his solicitor to the Law Society of Scotland for legal aid irregularities and is yet to hear back about his complaint said the legal aid system in Scotland was “poorly policed” and was little more than “a Law Society controlled public handout to bankroll solicitors who end up doing nothing for their clients”.

The following release is how the Law Society see their role in the expected battle over cuts to the legal aid budget :

Law Society warning over legal aid

Scottish solicitors have been urged to form a united front to fight a looming threat to legal aid budgets – because any cuts will have a hugely damaging effect on access to justice.

New Westminster Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has indicated that the legal aid budget for England and Wales is in his sights when he looks to identify cuts – although it has been frozen for the last six years and the Coalition Agreement states that a “fundamental review” of Legal Aid is planned.

In Scotland, while the legal aid system is not subject to Westminster control, it is certain to come under massive scrutiny, according to Andrew Alexander, the Law Society of Scotland’s Legal Aid co-ordinator.

Mr Alexander said it was time to fight to protect both criminal and civil legal aid now – rather than waiting for cuts to happen. Civil legal aid in particular had already been “cut to the bone”, he added.

“The freezing of the English legal aid budget for six years has amounted to almost a 20 per cent cut in real terms,” Mr Alexander said. “The pressure to deliver justice to a fixed budget has placed the justice system in England and Wales under extreme pressure – and solicitors are being paid later and later.”

The Legal Services Commission (LSC) delayed some payments to legal aid practitioners until April and its new financial year. Also, the LSC is now routinely delaying payments to solicitors, and the Law Society in England and Wales has needed to advise banks of the consequent cashflow problems for legal firms.

The attempt to drive down costs at the LSC has led to tendering proposals for criminal work that would see around 500 firms receive contracts for criminal work in England and Wales: the remainder of the 1,700 criminal firms south of the border would, from 2011, leave the market.”

“Whether these tendering proposals go ahead under the new Government, it is clear that cuts to the Legal Aid system in England and Wales are likely to be severe,” said Mr Alexander. “In Scotland, the Law Society will strongly defend the interests of solicitors in criminal and civil Legal Aid practice, just as these practitioners strongly defend some of the most vulnerable in society at the most vulnerable stages of their lives.

“It is vital that the profession is united in facing this challenge: not just Legal Aid practitioners but also solicitors working at Law Centres and at voluntary organisations, bodies which rely on public funds to provide assistance to the public.

“We could find ourselves in a double dip recession and the Society will fight any cuts toe-to-toe.”

Mr Alexander said reforms to speed up justice and reduce costs had to continue: the Society’s criminal negotiating team had substantial input to the summary justice reform process, and are now active in monitoring and evaluating its progress. He stressed that these recent reforms had delivered bigger savings than predicted and that work would go on to encourage early pleas to save money and time.

He warned that civil justice was under particular threat: “We need to say enough is enough and work to protect all areas – but civil justice, in particular, is in danger.”

The Law Society of Scotland has recently met with Lord Bach, former Legal Aid Minister for England and Wales; with Helen Edwards, current Director General at the Ministry of Justice in London; with its counterparts at the Law Society of England and Wales; and will shortly be visited by Ministry of Justice officials from New Zealand. In fighting for access to justice in Scotland, learning lessons from other jurisdictions will be vital.

“Legal Aid was intended as the fourth pillar of the welfare state,” Mr Alexander concludes. “It remains vitally important that people who are unable to afford representation have that paid by the state. This is a concept that is intuitive – 68% of people in a recent YouGov survey agreed with this principle – and one which the Society will strive to maintain.”

As you can see from the above Law Society media release, the legal profession’s representative body has been busy, readying itself to fight for the pockets of its own members … just don’t expect the Law Society to fight for the rights of clients .. who will clearly come out last again in this annual game of catch the legal aid handout …

Incidentally, I do know a few law firms who still take on legal aid work, one of which works tirelessly for its clients … so its not all bad … there is at least one law firm in the whole of Scotland who can be approached to handle a case without clients fearing their legal aid is going to be ripped off, as well as their own finances …

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