As civil solicitors we have never known such unanimous frustration and outrage across the profession at the Scottish Government's handling of proposed contributions in criminal legal aid ("Offer to amend legal aid proposals", The Herald, November 21).
Civil legal aid practitioners already know that contributions are a bar to access to justice. It will not be the first battered spouse or parent seeking contact with their child who has had to abandon legal action when faced with a civil legal aid contribution they cannot pay. It is one of the more disheartening parts of a solicitor's job to see a victim of domestic abuse let down by the system because they cannot afford protective orders.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has to answer why, if by his argument there is to be parity in the approach to contributions in civil and criminal legal aid, the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) collects civil contributions but will not collect criminal contributions? SLAB could easily collect criminal contributions as they do now in civil cases. If the Government's proposals proceed and individuals cannot pay contributions to their solicitors there will be an indirect but significant cut in criminal firms' incomes.
Criminal legal aid solicitors, like civil legal aid solicitors, are already operating their mostly small businesses under challenging financial conditions. We risk permanently undermining the skill, experience and knowledge base of a critical part of our legal system – those who test the allegations and assertions made by the state against its citizens and who daily make being innocent until proven guilty more than just a principle.
The political manoeuvres have to end. For a democratic society based on the rule of law, access to justice is always going to be expensive whatever the model for delivery of legal services. In trying to get access to justice on the cheap, Mr MacAskill may well be remembered as the Justice Minister who permanently cheapened our proud and much lauded legal system.
Hundreds of firms, like ours, made nowhere near £1 million from legal aid last year.
Gillian Baker & Paul Gostelow,
16 Clydeview Centre, Blantyre.
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