HUGHES Walker solicitor Julia McPartlin took control of an organisation that had been in protest mode for an extended period of time when she succeeded Leanne McQuillan as president of Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA) in June.

Kicking off at the end of 2017, EBA’s members had gradually withdrawn from a series of duty rotas put in place by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab) in a coordinated move designed to highlight their dissatisfaction with the level of fees they were being paid.

From Slab’s police station duty scheme to rosters covering the Justice of the Peace and extradition courts and a rota covering court appointments in summary cases where the accused cannot carry out their own defence, the EBA’s members voted with their feet and refused to take part.

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Although the organisation said in January that it was consulting on giving up duty work altogether, there have been no further withdrawals from the EBA in recent months, with a three per cent increase to all legal-aid fee bands in April and an ongoing consultation into how the fee regime could be overhauled giving members some hope that positive change could be on the horizon.

Yet with the outcome of a wider review into the entire publicly funded legal sector still some way from being determined, Ms McPartlin said that legal aid is likely to be the main preoccupation of her two years at the EBA’s helm.

“Legal aid is the main thing, really, that we do,” she said. “There are a whole lot of committees to do with the court in terms of day-to-day functioning and between me and vice-president Neil Martin we’ll go to those.

“That’s really practical stuff but the thing that takes up most of our time is arguing with Slab – that’s the main focus and the most important.”

It has long been the contention of the EBA and many other lawyers doing legal aid work that they are not appropriately remunerated for the work they do, an assertion they back up by pointing to a range of fee bands that have remained unchanged since the 1990s.

The Scottish Government sought to address these and other concerns by commissioning former Carnegie UK Trust chief executive Martyn Evans to conduct a year-long review of the sector, with a panel being established to review how fees are set after he reported last February.

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That panel began meeting earlier this year and a public consultation into Mr Evans’s recommendations has recently closed.

Yet while Ms McPartlin said that the EBA welcomes much of what Mr Evans suggested, she also noted that there is a concern that if the Government chooses to start procuring legal aid services via contracts it will only serve to exacerbate the existing issues around fees.

“One aim of the consultation was to consider how to fill gaps in the provision of legal aid that relate to certain types of work and to geographical areas,” she said.

“It appears to us that those gaps exist because there is insufficient funding available and as an association we are very concerned that contracting may be a device to compel solicitors to undertake work that is not financially viable at present in order to secure a contract.”

Despite the ongoing issues facing those working in the legal aid sector, Ms McPartlin said she loves her criminal defence practice and could not personally imagine doing anything else.

“Being in court and dealing with people - they are not always easy people, or they might be people who have done some not very nice things – everyone’s different and there’s always something to empathise with,” she said.

“I wouldn’t swap it. I wouldn’t tell [Slab chief executive] Colin Lancaster that I’d do it whatever he paid me, but I probably would.”

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Yet while that might be music to the ears of a government that is grappling with how best to modernise the system while continuing to keep a control on costs, Ms McPartlin warned that not everyone feels the same way.

“Morale is not great and hasn’t been great for quite a while,” she said. “We had a period of a few years when there were a lot of people leaving and some of them had been around for years.

“That seems to have slowed down at the moment, but as a profession it’s difficult for us to be optimistic as we’ve not had great relations with Slab or the Scottish Government and no one was buoyed up by the 3% pay increase.”