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Confusion over introduction of changes to legal aid fees

CRIMINAL defence lawyers claim they are being kept in the dark over controversial legal aid changes.

Government plans to force people accused of lower level crime to pay towards their legal costs have been put on hold indefinitely - leaving the legal profession wondering what the future holds for the scheme.

The Law Society of Scotland and the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) also have no information on when the plans, which were widely opposed by solicitors, will be enacted.

The new scheme was supposed to be introduced earlier this year but it was halted when the Law Society issued guidance stating that solicitors - who have been charged with collecting the fees from clients - should withdraw from acting if they have not been paid.

This guidance could cause major delays and disruption to court procedures as lawyers walk out on cases as they reach court.

Martin Hughes, president of the Glasgow Bar Association, said: "The commencement date for contributions was supposed to be February but that was put back and nothing has happened since then.

"Solicitors have been left not knowing when it will be introduced or even if it's been scrapped, which we clearly don't really believe to be the case, but we've no idea what's going on with it."

He added: "The Law Society made it clear that solicitors should not carry on acting at their client's intermediate diet in the event of a contribution going unpaid.

"This poses a major problem for the justice system and one which was clearly outlined to the Government before the Bill was passed.

"We warned them that solicitors would be forced to withdraw from acting in the middle of cases.

"Nobody wants to do it, but we also want to paid for the work that we do, just the same as anyone would. I believe the Government were taken aback by the guidance from the Law Society and nothing has happened since.

"And in the meantime, solicitors are being kept in the dark."

Mark Harrower, of the Edinburgh Bar Association, added that he hopes the plans are scrapped completely by the Government.

He said the changes were "bound to be detrimental to the smooth running of court cases".

The plans form part of the Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance Bill, which was passed early last year amid an angry protest from the legal profession.

They will see anyone accused in a summary case, where a jury is not present, forced to pay towards their legal costs if they have a disposable weekly income of more than £82.

Lawyers claim the move will result in miscarriages of justice as people choose to represent themselves rather than pay up.

They are also angry at being forced to collect the new fees, claiming it will damage client relationships, and believe the Scottish Legal Aid Board is better placed to do so.

The Scottish Legal Aid Board said it is awaiting instruction from the Government over the implementation of the contributions.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Legislation to introduce contributions for criminal legal aid was passed by Parliament as part of a programme of reforms in Scotland to reduce spending while continuing to protect the range of cases eligible for legal aid.

"Our plans contrast with legal aid reforms in England and Wales where areas including family law, housing and welfare benefits have been cut.

"We have been in discussions with the Law Society of Scotland from an early stage about how contributions for criminal legal aid will work in practice.

"These discussions are continuing following recent changes to criminal work guidance announced by the Law Society and we will share plans for introduction as soon as possible."

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