MEMBERS of Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA) have further reduced the amount of legal aid work they are willing to take on as they continue to press the Scottish Government to take action to increase the fees it pays for publicly funded legal work.

At the end of last year, the EBA’s criminal practitioners led a nationwide walk-out from the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s police station duty scheme before also shunning the board’s Justice of the Peace court rota in September.

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Now, the EBA’s criminal members have voted to stop accepting court appointments in summary cases where the accused is prohibited from carrying out their own defence, claiming the amount of money paid for such work is derisory.

“If someone is charged in a domestic or sexual case they are not allowed to cross examine witnesses so if they don’t get legal aid and are left unrepresented the court can appoint someone to represent them,” said EBA president Leanne McQuillan.

“Or in a case where the defendant has a really inappropriate position they want to put to a witness and you say you can’t follow those instructions, the court can appoint someone who is not obliged to take instructions.

“The court can appoint you but you will be paid on a different basis, with the rate reverting to those that were fixed in 1992 - £42.20 an hour. We have chosen this to make a point about because it’s the 1992 rate.”

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At the beginning of March, Carnegie UK Trust chief executive Martyn Evans, who had been asked to review the legal aid sector on behalf of the Scottish Government, said he could “not find the evidence to justify” an increase to fee rates, despite acknowledging that “many solicitors and advocates are clearly frustrated with the level of fees for providing legal aid”.

Instead, Mr Evans said the legal aid system should be fundamentally overhauled to drive efficiencies, with his recommendations including making better use of technology and establishing a new body for delivering what he termed publicly funded legal assistance.

The Government, which has been reviewing Mr Evans’s report since March, is expected to issue its response imminently. However, Ms McQuillan said the EBA believes it should disregard Mr Evans’s recommendations in their entirety because he did not engage with the issue of fee levels.

“A lot of the review seems to be focused on theoretical ideas such as justice centres, but it’s all really vague and meaningless,” Ms McQuillan said.

“A lot of his information about fees is incomplete and it beggars belief that the Government spent so much money on a review that doesn’t look at the rates.

“What [Mr Evans] envisages is rubbing everything out and starting again but we don’t think there’s anything wrong with the system, it’s just completely underfunded.”

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A Scottish Government spokeswoman did not respond directly to Ms McQuillan’s comments, but said that ministers have considered the views of both the review panel and “a wide range of stakeholders including the Law Society of Scotland” as part of drafting their response.

Ian Moir, convenor of the Law Society of Scotland’s criminal legal aid committee, said the Evans report did address a number of issues put forward by the profession and included “a number of useful recommendations that could improve the system”.

However, he said he agrees with Ms McQuillan that Mr Evans “completely misunderstood the need for urgent, proper funding of legal aid”, particularly as the Government recently made an additional £3.6 million available to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to expand its team of prosecutors.

“The funding is needed right now and it would avoid a situation in five to ten years’ time where there’s no one coming into the system,” Mr Moir said.

READ MORE: Government review rejects pleas to raise legal aid fees

Noting that he “wouldn’t be remotely surprised” if other faculties follow the EBA’s lead by refusing to take on court-appointed summary work, Mr Moir stressed that additional funding is “needed urgently”.

“The legal aid system is not there just for lawyers, as is often portrayed, but for people that need to use it,” he added.

Despite that, the Government spokeswoman said that the scope of legal aid “remains extremely wide in Scotland”, adding that “the legal aid fund is uncapped and expenditure is based on the demand for provision of services”.