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Warning of courts chaos as lawyers vote to strike

SHERIFF courts could potentially be brought to a standstill in the run-up to Christmas after criminal defence lawyers voted unanimously to strike over legal aid reforms.

Representatives of law faculties from across Scotland voted to push ahead with fresh industrial action following Monday's one-day protest targeting custodies at Edinburgh Sheriff Court.

No notice will be given for the walkouts, which are expected to halt cases at some of the busiest sheriff

courts, from Paisley to Dumfries, Inverness and Aberdeen, as well as in Scotland's two biggest cities.

Ann Ritchie, vice-president of the Glasgow Bar Association, said: "It's clear that, contrary to the recent statements by [Justice Secretary] Kenny MacAskill, no meaningful proposals have been brought to the table by the Scottish Government."

Ms Ritchie declined to say whether the action would take place within the next two weeks, but added that members felt it was needed urgently.

The profession is outraged over proposed reforms to legal aid that would mean anyone with more than £68 of disposable income per week, or holding £750 in the bank, will be expected to pay all or part of their defence costs in court.

Solicitors say it will end access to legal representation for all and yesterday accused the Government of being "selective" in estimating that 30% of accused would not pay up, suggesting the figure would be more like 80%.

They are also unhappy about plans to make solicitors responsible for collecting the contributions from clients.

Cameron Tait, president of the Edinburgh Bar Association, said Mr MacAskill's statement that Monday's action was premature was "ridiculous".

He said: "The profession took the decision with great reluctance after the Government stated to the Law Society's negotiating team on legal aid that the issue of contributions was not even up for discussion.

"We felt the time was right to lead the way and show that the profession had been pushed too far and would not easily stand for more."

A Government spokesman said the announcement was disappointing, adding: "It will inconvenience courts, accused persons, victims and witnesses in a move that is wholly premature while discussions are still ongoing."

He said officials were working with the court service, Crown Office, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, prison service and the Scottish Legal Aid Board on "contingency arrangements".

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