THE fate of legal aid has dominated much of the debate around the legal profession in 2018, after the year started with lawyers across the country staging a mass walkout from the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s (Slab) police station duty scheme and ended with the Government agreeing to a three per cent increase to fee levels.

Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA) was the first local faculty to shun the duty scheme, with its criminal members noting that moves to provide everyone brought in for questioning with legal advice had made their membership untenable.

Their argument was that because legal aid fees had been held at the same level for more than two decades firms were finding it harder to attract new recruits, with the inevitable impact being that they did not have enough staff to cover busier duty shifts, particularly overnight.

Local bar associations from Orkney to the Borders followed suit, with more than 200 private practice solicitors withdrawing from the scheme in all.

Despite this, when Carnegie UK Trust chief executive Martyn Evans released his much-anticipated, Government-commissioned review of the legal aid sector at the end of February he said it had “proved impossible” as part of the review process “to find robust sources of persuasive evidence for a general increase in fees”.

This did not go down well with legal aid lawyers, with William McIntyre of Falkirk firm Russel & Aitken noting that it was “extremely disappointing but not hugely surprising” while EBA president Leanne McQuillan said there were “significant flaws” in the methodology used by Mr Evans to arrive at his conclusion.

“It is of significant concern that, despite the resources and evidence available to Mr Evans, he could find nothing to persuade him that there should be an increase in legal aid fees,” she said.

The EBA’s members continued to cut back on legal aid work throughout the year, shunning the Slab’s Justice of the Peace court duty scheme in September and voting in November to stop accepting court appointments in summary cases where the accused is prohibited from carrying out their own defence. On both occasions they said the level of fees paid for such work meant it was no longer tenable.

When it finally issued its response to Mr Evans’s review last month the Scottish Government chose to disregard his stance on fees, with community safety minister Ash Denholm saying that because the Government “values the professionals who undertake legal aid work, often for the most vulnerable in our society”, it would apply the 3% increase to all fees from April next year.

Though those operating in the legal aid space said this was a partial vindication of their argument that the system was no longer fit for purpose, the issue is likely to continue into the new year, with Law Society of Scotland president Alison Atack noting that “the 3% rise on its own will not solve the problems we are seeing in the system”.

Elsewhere, there were big leadership changes at the largest commercial law firms during the year, with Brodies, Burness Paull and MacRoberts all putting new management teams in place.

At the beginning of the year Bill Drummond, who had served as managing partner of Brodies for 20 years, announced that he was preparing to hand the baton to real estate head Nick Scott in May, while at Burness Paull Tamar Tammes and Peter Lawson replaced Ian Wattie as managing partner and Philip Rodney as chairman respectively.

Speaking soon after taking up his new position Mr Scott said that as well as focusing on driving the firm forward he would utilise its membership of diversity initiative PRIME to help progress the profession as a whole.

At Burness Paull, Ms Tammes said she intends to make the managing partner role far more visible than it has been in the past to show younger women entering the profession that partnership and leadership is within their grasp.

Meanwhile, when Neil Kennedy replaced John Macmillan as managing partner of MacRoberts in May he said his priority would be to grow the firm via acquisition.

“There will be consolidation and for us that means adding teams as well as other law firms,” he explained.