CARNEGIE UK Trust chief executive Martyn Evans’s proposals for overhauling the Scottish legal aid system were never popular with those who provide publicly funded legal services, precisely because he said he could find “no justification” to recommend an increase to fee rates.

In its long-awaited response to Mr Evans's review, which was released in February, the Scottish Government has chosen to disregard that finding, with minister for community safety Ash Denham announcing last week that a three per cent increase to all fees will be applied from next year.

“This government values the professionals who undertake legal aid work, often for the most vulnerable in our society, therefore I am pleased to be able to announce a 3% increase in fees,” Ms Denham said.

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The move was broadly welcomed by lawyers groups, with both Law Society of Scotland president Alison Atack and Faculty of Advocates vice-dean Angela Grahame QC noting that the fee increase is an acknowledgement of the contribution legal aid practitioners make to society.

“The current low rates of pay risk discouraging solicitors from carrying out legal aid work, leaving some of the most vulnerable in society unable to get the expert legal help they need and deserve. I am glad those arguments have been listened to and responded to by the minister,” Ms Atack said.

“We were disappointed that the [Evans] review did not recommend any increase in legal aid fees and are greatly encouraged by the Scottish Government’s approach,” Ms Grahame added.

“For our members to receive this public support from the Scottish Government is heartening, and the decision to increase both civil and criminal legal aid fees demonstrates an acknowledgement of the commitment demonstrated by our members doing legal aid work on a daily basis over many years.”

However, with some legal aid fees having remained unchanged since 1992, some lawyers operating in the sector feel the increase is derisory.

Responding to justice secretary Humza Yousaf on Twitter, the Edinburgh Bar Association, whose members have been scaling back the type of legal aid work they are willing to do over the course of this year, said that the Government “need to do much better than a 3% increase to fix the years and years of chronic underfunding of the system”.

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Douglas Thomson, president of the Society of Solicitors in the Supreme Courts of Scotland, agreed, noting that the 3% rise will take the fee paid for undertaking summary work “to the figure in 1999”.

To compound matters, while the Scottish Government has committed to reviewing how fees are set and paid in order to simplify the system, it has warned that will take some time to complete, meaning further increases are not likely in the near term.

“We agree [with the Evans report] that an evidence-based model for agreeing levels of fees should be developed, and are committed to working with the profession to achieve that aim. We also agree that the broader framework within which fees sit should be reviewed, and that this should be done with the legal profession,” the Government said in its response.

“However, we also recognise that this will be a challenging and potentially time consuming recommendation to deliver in an impactful way; while the report makes suggestions on how this might be achieved, we consider it would be more beneficial to agree the methodology for such a model in dialogue with the legal profession.This will take some time and we intend to establish a working group to agree that model.”

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With the Government also committing to launching a public consultation to inform “the design of a user-focused and flexible legal aid service tailored to meet the needs of a modern Scotland”, for Ms Atack the focus on fees must be the main priority.

“The 3% rise on its own will not solve the problems we are seeing in the system. That is why the implementation of a new, evidence-based review system must also remain a priority,” she said.

“This is vital to ensure there are fair and sustainable fees for solicitors who carry out this important work in the long term. We welcome the Government’s commitment to moving forward with this and will look forward to discussions taking place as soon as possible.”