LAWYERS throughout the country have staged a fourth day of court boycotts in protest over proposed changes to legal aid.

Hundreds of custody cases at every sheriff court in Scotland experienced widespread delays as solicitors from the country's bar associations refused to represent people who were arrested over the weekend.

Many people appearing in court were again forced to either represent themselves or have their case delayed to a future date, while others were represented by the Government-run Public Defence Solicitors Office.

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Reports suggested the action affected 100 cases at Glasgow Sheriff Court and 40 at Edinburgh Sheriff Court, while other courts – including those in Aberdeen, Dundee, Falkirk and Stirling – were also hit.

The co-ordinated action is the first nationwide protest following similar boycotts in sheriffdoms in different parts of the country.

The solicitors are angry at Scottish Government proposals to charge contributions for legal aid for those with a disposable income of more than £82 a week.

Last night Cameron Tait, chairman of the Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA), said lawyers had been left with no choice.

Mr Tait said: "This action has been taken by a profession that feels the system of contributions in its current form will seriously impede access to justice for the working poor in Scotland and will represent another blow to solicitors practising criminal law."

Glasgow Bar Association president Ann Ritchie said: "The Government's proposals, driven by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab), will deny access to justice for the working poor and, as such, are unacceptable to any responsible court practitioner."

Andrew Aitken, president of the West Lothian Bar Association, added: "We will stand shoulder to shoulder with our colleagues across the entire country"

Lawyers initially disagreed with plans by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to force those with a weekly disposable income of £68 or more a week to pay a contribution to their legal aid.

The Government agreed to increase the threshold to £82, but solicitors claim this will still limit access to justice.

Mr MacAskill also plans to force lawyers to collect the contributions from their clients in summary (non-jury) cases but solicitors claim Slab is best placed to collect contributions.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Today's action is wholly unnecessary and undermines our attempts to hold meaningful negotiations with the Law Society of Scotland.

"There is, and always has been, a clear willingness on the part of Scottish Government to listen and to engage with the profession.

"The Scottish Government has met the Law Society of Scotland regularly and officials are meeting again later this week. This action is premature while these talks are still ongoing."