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LEGAL BILLIONS: Law Society hits out at legal aid cuts as Scottish Legal Aid Board reveal lawyers received £138.6m public cash in 2014-15, making £1.2bn since 2008 financial crash

18 Dec

Billions in public cash keep ‘struggling’ lawyers afloat. SCOTLAND’S legal profession took home a staggering £138.6 million in public cash last year – for giving Scots access to justice – according to figures released by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) today.

However, the latest round of payments of public subsidies to struggling solicitors, down from last year’s £150.5 million and marked for a further reduction by Finance Secretary John Swinney to £126.1m in 2016 budget – sparked ire at the Law Society of Scotland who yesterday attacked the Finance Secretary’s legal aid reductions as “unrealistic”.

Figures provided by the Scottish Legal Aid Board reveal Scotland’s legal profession have taken home over £1.2 billion in public cash since the great financial crash of 2008: 2014-2015: £138.6m, 2013-14 £150.5m, 2012-13 £150.2m, 2011-12 £150.7m, 2010-11 £161.4m, 2009-10 £150.5m, 2008-09 £150.2m, 2007-08 £155.1m, TOTAL: £1.207 Billion.

Commenting on the figures, the Scottish Legal Aid Board said “Services funded through the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) provided help during 2014-15 to tens of thousands of often vulnerable people across Scotland. Legal aid funding allowed people to access the services of private practice solicitors, SLAB’s employed solicitors, law centres, and over 100 grant funded projects.”

Legal Aid Big Spenders: See which law firms, Advocates & Solicitor Advocates took home Legal Aid millions in 2014-2015. Glasgow based law firm Livingstone Browne Solicitors remain the top-earning law firm, taking home legal aid payments of £1.9 million. Brian McConnachie QC is Scotland’s top legal aid earning advocate, receiving £303,000, Gordon Jackson QC earned £282,000 and third highest earner is Donald Findlay OQ on £258,600.The top legal aid earning solicitor advocate was Iain Paterson of Paterson Bell solicitors – who received £267,200 of public cash for legal services.

The total cost to the taxpayer of legal assistance in Scotland was £138.6 million in 2014-15, a decrease of 8% compared to the previous year. This £11.9m decrease is partly due to changes in the flow of criminal cases through the justice system in 2014-15. However, 2014-15 also saw falling applications and grants of summary criminal and civil legal assistance, offset partly by a slight increase in solemn criminal legal aid and continued growth in children’s legal assistance.

Colin Lancaster, Chief Executive of SLAB, said: “Over the last year, legal aid has again helped people across the country, many of them on low incomes and with caring responsibilities, defend themselves against criminal charges or deal with their problems on debt, housing, mental health or family breakdown.

“Publicly funded legal assistance helps people to resolve the problems they encounter in day to day life by pursuing or defending their rights and as such it makes a vital contribution to tackling inequalities in Scotland.

“The fall in expenditure in 2014-15 is not a signal that the financial challenges are over or that the legal aid system doesn’t need further reform and streamlining.

“The impact of the UK Spending Review means that significant further changes are needed to meet the Scottish Government’s budget allocation for legal aid. While the legal aid fund is demand led, and no-one who is eligible will be refused legal aid, expenditure savings will need to be found.

“Access to justice can only be maintained in the face of these financial challenges by working collaboratively with those interested in protecting the vulnerable through a legal aid system that is broad in scope and encourages a strategic approach to meeting needs. I look forward to doing so over the coming months.”

Iain A Robertson CBE, Chairman of SLAB, said: “Although we have seen the general demand for legal assistance fall again in 2014-15, the funds available to manage public finances are also falling. The need to reduce expenditure on legal aid has not gone away, and will increase.

“We will work collaboratively with others in the justice sector to deliver improvements that will enable further reductions in legal aid expenditure, including by streamlining the legal aid system where possible.

“It is imperative that discussions on reforms are approached strategically and in the context of the justice system as a whole, to protect the best interests of those in need of support from the legal aid system. Otherwise Scotland risks its proud record on maintaining access to justice.”

Key points of the Scottish Legal Aid Board 2014-15 annual report:

    Total expenditure on the Legal Aid Fund in 2014-15 fell by 8% to £138.6 million compared to the previous year. The 2013-14 figure was £150.5 million.
SLAB assessed 212,000 applications for legal aid and paid 241,000 accounts of solicitors and counsel.
SLAB managed three grant funding programmes, which enabled support for 108 projects around Scotland. The projects helped nearly 27,000 new clients. SLAB grant funding also contributed to a new Scottish Women’s Rights Centre which helps women experiencing gender based violence.
SLAB processed all application and account types within its headline performance indicators.
SLAB reduced the average number of working days it takes to process civil legal aid applications by six working days. It also reduced the average number of working days to making a payment on an account by six working days.
Expenditure on criminal legal assistance fell by 10% compared to the previous year, from £94.0 million to £85.0 million.
Net expenditure on civil legal assistance was £43.9 million, a fall of 8% compared to the previous year from £47.7m. There has been a fall in the take-up of advice and representation in civil matters.
Children’s legal assistance (legal aid and ABWOR) cost £5.2 million, an increase of 7% compared to the previous year, from £4.9 million.
Gross expenditure on grant funded projects was £6.3 million which increased from £5.5 million as a result of the Scottish Government and Money Advice Service providing extra funding for an extended programme.
Payments to solicitors totalled £107.7 million, advocates £11.9 million and solicitor advocates £3.0 million.
Payments on outlays (e.g. expert witnesses and court reports) fell by 8% compared to the previous year, from £19.5 million to £17.9 million.
Grants of all types of criminal legal assistance have fallen compared to the previous year, apart from a small rise of 1.2% in grants of solemn criminal legal aid. This reflects a longer term trend of declining summary court business.
Grants of civil legal assistance have fallen by 9.5% compared to the previous year. Demand has fallen due to the easing of pressures stemming from the economic situation. The largest volume year-on-year falls were in cases with subject matters of contact, separation and divorce. All these areas have been steadily declining for the past few years.
Legal aid grants in relation to intervention orders and guardianship orders under Part 6 of the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000 now represent the largest category of legal aid certificates issued at 28% of all grants. Grants of this nature rose 19% in 2014-15 compared to the previous year.
Grants of children’s legal assistance continue to be affected by the changes that came into force on 24 June 2013 that extended the scope and availability of legal assistance for children’s hearings. It is still too early to establish a proper comparison in volumes between years.

Responding to cuts in Legal Aid, and the Scottish Government’s Draft Budget for 2016-17, announced yesterday, Christine McLintock, President of the Law Society of Scotland, made the following statement to legal aid practitioners: “The 2016-17 budget allocation for the legal aid fund has been set at £126.1 million, the lowest it has been for well over a decade. This is a reduction from the 2015-16 budget of over 7% (from £136.1 million to £126.1 million).

“Legal aid spending is demand led and not limited by the budget and so we would expect the Scottish Government to continue to meet all its obligations in terms of demand for legal aid over the coming year. However, as you are aware, through its savings initiatives, the Government tries to reduce expenditure to meet the budget allocation.

“The Scottish Government has set the financial target for 2016-17 at a level that:

Is lower, in cash terms, than levels of legal aid expenditure from over 20 years ago (in 1994/95 the total expenditure on legal assistance was £132.1 million).

Is clearly unrealistic if you are trying to maintain an effective and sustainable legal aid system. Given existing figures, in order to reach its target, the Government would need to cut expenditure by at least £10 million by 2016-17. We do not see how this can possibly be achieved without seriously damaging both access to justice and the justice system.”

Investigation on Legal Aid in Scotland: SCOTTISH JUSTICE IN THE DOCK : Scotland’s lawyers earn more from Legal Aid than whole of Italy, shock report reveals

The Euro study showed that Scotland disciplined a tiny number of lawyers compared to countries of similar size. Just three were struck off and 13 reprimanded in Scotland in 2010. Denmark, with a similar population, took action against 309 lawyers, with six struck off and 145 fined. And in Finland, also close in size, 99 rogue solicitors were sanctioned. Critics blame the Law Society of Scotland’s dual role of representing lawyers while also acting as regulator.

A large proportion of alleged criminals reported to prosecutors in Scotland are not being put in the dock. Of 265,830 cases sent to the Crown Office, only 41.7 per cent were brought to court. In England and Wales, 90.6 per cent of all cases resulted in court action.

The difference is thought to be partly due to Scotland’s recent introduction of spot fines and fiscal fines for what the authorities insist are more minor offences. Critics claim such fines lead to a secret justice system.

The report reveals that Scotland’s sheriffs top the European pay league.

Our sheriffs, with an average salary of 150,106 euros (£120,000), were number one, ahead of the Irish and Swiss. Next were sheriffs’ counterparts in England and Wales, who were paid 120,998 euros (£95,000). Not only were sheriffs the highest-paid, they also topped the table comparing their earnings to the national average. They earned 5.2 times the average Scot’s wage.

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