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Law Society backs down over reforms to legal aid

THE Law Society of Scotland is backing down on protests against legal aid reforms after weeks of court walkouts and a series of high-level meetings with the Justice Secretary.

change OF STANCE: Law Society president Austin Lafferty, front left, pictured at a protest last year, says the latest package is fairer than earlier proposals. Picture: Stewart Attwood
change OF STANCE: Law Society president Austin Lafferty, front left, pictured at a protest last year, says the latest package is fairer than earlier proposals. Picture: Stewart Attwood

The body that represents Scottish solicitors said it would support revised proposals, despite a majority of members rejecting them.

Faculties and Bar Associations had been asked to consider an amended set of proposals on legal aid that had been negotiated by the Law Society, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

Despite stern criticisms of the reforms from the profession, half of the 12 faculties that have so far responded voted in favour of the package.

Banff, Dumbarton, Dunfermline, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth voted against, while Falkirk, Hamilton, Highlands, Kilmarnock, Stirling and West Lothian gave their support.

However, a statement from the Law Society of Scotland said it understood that Aberdeen, Dumfries, Dundee, Alloa, Kirkcaldy and Paisley had also rejected the package, with Ayr accepting, although it had yet to receive an official response.

President of the Law Society, Austin Lafferty said: "While the latest proposals do not address all of our concerns, a number of local faculties did vote to accept the Scottish Government's latest proposals and felt it was likely the best deal available.

"While this package does not resolve all of our concerns, it proposes a fairer system than was originally put forward by ministers. As such, we will support amendments to the legislation and other regulations that deliver these material improvements."

However, Mr Lafferty said the Society expected practical difficulties to emerge as a result of the reforms.

Hundreds of defence solicitors walked out of sheriff courts last year in a series of protests against reforms that will see defendants eligible for legal aid asked to contribute to the costs for the first time.

The Scottish Government initially proposed that anyone with a disposable income of £68 per week or with £750 in the bank would be expected to pay all or part of the cost of their defence, but faced a backlash from solicitors who claimed it would risk miscarriages of justice.

They were also unhappy at being forced to collect the contributions from their clients in summary (non-jury) cases, and claim the Scottish Legal Aid Board is best placed to make the collections.

Following negotiations, the figure has since been upped to £82 per week. The Bill will be debated in the Scottish Parliament on January 29.

The reforms come as the Government tries to drive down the cost of legal aid to the public purse. A total of £157.2 million was spent on the service in 2011-12, the second-highest amount since it was launched in 1949.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "The Bill will deliver substantial savings on the legal aid budget, which will allow us to carry on maintaining the broad scope of legal aid in Scotland for those who need it most. This is in direct contrast to the situation we are seeing south of the Border, where the UK Government have made huge cuts to the scope of legal aid."

Representatives of the city Bar Associations and many of their colleagues around the country reacted angrily last night, saying the Law Society negotiators had been forced into accepting the changes.

Edinburgh Bar Association President Cameron Tait said: "[Justice Secretary] Kenny MacAskill's megaphone diplomacy might have persuaded the negotiating team, but the profession remains unimpressed. The removal of the availability of legal aid from accused persons on low incomes is abhorrent in modern Scotland, and we have serious concerns about the future of Scottish justice under the stewardship of this Government."

Ann Ritchie, President of the Glasgow Bar Association, stated: "It's unfortunate, to say the least, that the Government does not appear to understand its responsibility so far as the criminal court system is concerned.

"Our fight for equality of arms and access to justice will continue."

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