FORMER Labour MSP Gordon Jackson QC has retained his title as Scotland's top legal aid earner for the second year in a row.
Mr Jackson pocketed a total of £407,600 from the Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab) in 2011-12, down slightly on the year before.
His high-profile clients during this period included Trevor Muirhead, later convicted of the bomb plot against Celtic coach Neil Lennon and two others.
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Mr Jackson beat off competition from renowned QC Donald Findlay, who took second place with £330,100 in publicly funded earnings. Mr Findlay saw his payments increase by £48,000 on the previous year, up 7%.
Relative newcomer Brian McConnachie, QC, who last year shot from number 33 to number two, took third place on the list with earnings of £325,100.
The top earning solicitor advocate was named for the second year in a row as Iain Paterson, of Paterson Bell Solicitors, who received £194,700. However, his publicly funded earnings were down £68,500 (26%) on the previous year.
Livingston Brown was named as the overall top earning law firm for the fourth year running with a total legal aid bill of £1.9 million, some £436,800 (18%) less than last year.
The figures come as Slab claims a budget shortfall is leaving the legal aid system in one of its most challenging times since it was established around 60 years ago.
Its annual report, published yesterday, said a total of £157.2m was spent on legal aid last year, £4.2m less than the year before – but still the second-highest amount ever.
The Herald earlier revealed defence solicitors are poised for strike action over a controversial change to the legal aid system.
Lawyers are unhappy about Government plans to force them to collect legal aid contributions from clients in summary cases who have a disposable income of £68 or more – a move they claim will turn them into state- sponsored debt collectors.
They have called for Slab to make the collections and are threatening to bring the country's courts to a standstill should the proposal pass the next stage of the parliamentary process.
The Scottish Conservatives have backed the solicitors.
Chief Whip John Lamont said: "The Scottish Conservatives will be submitting an amendment to this legislation which would ensure Slab continues to take the burden of collection. Without this, we could face significant delays in the courtroom over payment, while it could hit some law firms financially.
"It is essential the Scottish Government and defence solicitors do everything they can to reach an agreement to prevent strike action on this."
Slab's annual report also revealed that defence solicitors saw a drop in payments of £5.9m (7%), taking their total fees to £75.2m, while civil solicitors gained a £2m (5%) increase to take a total of £42.5m.
Slab chief executive Lindsay Montgomery warned of a significant gap between the amount of cash the Scottish Government has earmarked for legal aid and projected expenditure.
He said: "Legal aid in Scotland is facing one of its most challenging periods since its introduction in 1949."
Future changes to the justice system could add to the legal aid bill "while at the same time the Scottish Government's budget allocation for legal aid is reducing", Mr Montgomery said.
Slab made savings of £12m in 2011-12, but Mr Montgomery added: "Pressure on public expenditure means that further reform of legal aid is required in order for expenditure to remain sustainable in the long term."
Oliver Adair, the Law Society of Scotland's Legal Aid con-vener, said any further savings must not be at the expense of the justice system.
He added: "We know the Government is looking to make more savings and we will continue to be part of the discussions between the Government, the legal aid board and front-line solicitors to make the legal aid system as efficient as it can be."
The report also showed that following the introduction of the Solicitor Contact Line as part of the police station duty scheme – which was introduced in response to the controversial Cadder ruling – the time a suspect remains in custody has reduced by an average of 25%.
1 Gordon Jackson QC £407,600
2 Donald Findlay QC £330,100
3 Brian McConnachie QC £325,100
4 Ian Duguid QC £298,200
5 Anthony Lenehan £264,400
1 Iain Paterson £194,700
2 William McVicar £188,000
3 John Scott QC £177,300
4 Ian Bryce £176,900
5 Richard Goddard £165,300
1 Livingstone Brown Solicitors £1,952,200
2 Adams Whyte Solicitors £1,518,300
3 George Mathers & Co Solicitors £1,469,000
4 Turnbull McCarron Solicitors £1,450,400
5 Taylor & Kelly Solicitors £1,306,500