THE Scottish Government hopes to save on legal aid spending by demanding that some accused pay contributions in summary cases.
The direct collection of such sums by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab) could bring millions of pounds into the public purse. Forcing the task on to defence lawyers will not.
The introduction of contributions to legal aid for accused whose disposable income exceeds £68 per week erodes the rights of those who should be regarded as innocent until and unless proven guilty. And this is before the Scottish Government does its best to abolish the centuries-old safeguard of corroboration. In austere times, requiring an accused to contribute towards his legal costs may be necessary. But to leave the collection of such sums to defence solicitors (as the Government proposes) will cause wider problems. A client who fails or delays to pay his contribution is immediately at odds with those defending him. This will lead to lawyers having to continue cases or withdraw altogether while an accused seeks to catch up with payments, secure another lawyer, or just have a go himself in court. From the public's point of view, the idea of unrepresented accused directly questioning victims of abuse, assaults or harassment is an alarming prospect.
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Slab already processes thousands of applications for criminal legal aid to assess the entitlement to legal representation of those who face criminal charges at summary level. It refuses many such requests in cases it regards as trivial, where an accused is unable to verify the finances of all in his household, or where he is deemed to earn too much (about £215 per week). It is an exacting process. The board already collects the sums due from applicants in civil cases, and is scheduled to collect contributions from those accused in solemn (jury) cases. For applicants in summary cases it is surely straightforward for the board to obtain a mandate to allow instalment collections from a bank account. SLAB has the experience, the systems and – being a government agency – the authority to track and enforce payments. The funds collected would come straight to the Government.
Any other system of collection will merely transfer the substantial on-costs of delays and disruption to other parts of the justice budget. That is no saving at all.
10A Anderson Street, Airdrie.