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Lawyers walk out of court in fight against legal aid plan

LAWYERS in Edinburgh caused chaos in a court as they staged a walkout in a dispute over changes to the legal aid system.

FIGHTBACK: Lawyers protested outside after walking out of Edinburgh Sheriff Court. Picture: Gordon Terris
FIGHTBACK: Lawyers protested outside after walking out of Edinburgh Sheriff Court. Picture: Gordon Terris

As many people who were locked up over the weekend were forced to represent themselves, there were warnings further action will follow across the country.

A meeting tomorrow night, to be attended by professionals from across the country, will decide the next stage in the campaign against the Scottish Government reforms.

Anyone with more than £68 of disposable income each week or with £750 in the bank will be expected to pay all or part of the cost of their defence in court under the plans, designed to cut £3.9 million a year from Scotland's legal aid bill.

Solicitors say the move will risk miscarriages of justice and deny access to legal representation for all.

Edinburgh Bar Association and Glasgow Bar Association have already voted to take industrial action over the issue.

In the first round of action, members at Edinburgh Sheriff Court walked out of the custody court at 11.45am yesterday and protested outside.

Cameron Tait, president of Edinburgh Bar Association, apologised for not acting in court but added that solicitors in the city had no other choice.

He said: "We regret being forced to take this action but we have been absorbing legal aid cuts for years now and we cannot continue to do so.

"More important than that is the fact these changes will seriously undermine the integrity of our criminal justice system."

Mr Tait said the action had been taken at the last minute for "tactical reasons" and was prompted by a perceived U-turn by Holyrood's Justice Committee, which had shared some of the legal profession's concerns but later agreed with the SNP's administration plans.

Mr Tait added: "This action was as a direct result of the vote we had the other week and this is the first part of the action we are taking as a result of the decision of the Justice Committee not to follow its own recommendations and also the failure of the Government to negotiate with the profession.

"I can say there is a meeting on Wednesday with representatives from other faculties across Scotland. Further action is likely to affect other parts of Scotland as well."

Mr Tait said yesterday's protest had been effective.

He said: "A high number of people have had to represent themselves, a number of cases have been held over, some for another two weeks. That is adding to the court diary and jamming things up."

Solicitors also say they will be left out of pocket if clients do not pay up. The Bar associations and the Law Society of Scotland say the Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab) should be collecting the fees, as the board agreed to do in solemn (jury) cases.

It has also been claimed the changes will result in people who are acquitted of charges not receiving a refund, with allegations an accused could plead guilty for cost reasons – even if they are innocent of the crime.

Yesterday, relatives of those appearing in the custody court were handed letters stating solicitors would not be acting in court.

The letter read: "It is with deep regret we have to tell you that the members of the Edinburgh Bar Association have taken the decision to hold a day of protest action today which will involve them boycotting the custody court.

"The Government now wants to change the rules for legal aid cases.

"We believe these changes are wrong.

"There is no point in being a defence lawyer if you cannot stand up for what you believe in. Please support us."

A spokesman for the Scottish Court Service said: "The Scottish Court Service is closely monitoring the situation at Edinburgh Sheriff Court.

"We are confident the business in the custody court will proceed as scheduled."

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