SCOTLAND'S criminal lawyers are facing extinction amid fears over a rising crisis in the justice system.

Defence solicitors say they feel like “the last of the Mohicans” in their trade, citing stagnant legal aid fees and a lack of training opportunities for new graduates as a major barrier to ensuring people are effectively represented in court.

Despite a 3% rise in legal aid fees last week – the first in around 30 years – senior lawyers say the industry is at “crisis point” and have warned the Scottish Government they must overhaul the system or face further problems.

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They say the country will suffer from a shortage of qualified judges and sheriffs, defendants facing criminal trials on their own and a rise in the number of miscarriages of justice if decades of decline in the sector are not reversed.

Ian Moir, the Law Society of Scotland’s convener on legal aid, said: "We are heading for major disaster.

"What you don’t want is a dumbing down to a stage where you say ‘Well nobody with a law degree will do that work, so lets have people who do not have law degrees representing people in court.'

"Why would you ever want to get anywhere close the danger of that arriving? But yet, it is possible."

According to the Law Society of Scotland, the number of registered criminal lawyers doing legal aid work has fallen to the lowest level ever recorded, with 1108 solicitors at 457 firms on the roster this year – a 30% decline since 2004.

The issue mirrors that in England and Wales where the number has also dropped sharply, and the average age of a duty solicitor is now 50.

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Sir Brian Leveson, one of the country’s most senior judges, warned that defendants in England and Wales may have to face trials alone due to the plummeting number of criminal lawyers, and said some parts of the country were at risk of “becoming advice deserts”.

In Scotland, the issue has been further compounded by the introduction of round-the-clock legal advice for everyone in police custody, not just those being interviewed.

Introduced in January 2018, the scheme was rejected by many bar associations, including Dundee, Aberdeen and Edinburgh with solicitors concerned about the practicalities of giving advice to this number of people.

Mr Moir said: "I started 27 years ago and we have not had a rise in our fees since then. You can’t run a business like that. There are cases that you end up working on for less than minimum wage.

"Certain fees also dropped a good few years ago, so the 3% increase isn't really an increase, never mind taking into account the rising costs of food, homes, cars, insurance, and everything you need to run a business.

"My job is interesting, challenging and I do feel like I get the chance to make a difference, but it is also scary at times.You are dealing with clients who are at their worst. They may have been on drink or drugs for an extended period of time before custody, they are coming down from that, they’re irritable and volatile and you’re the person who has to go and tell them they’re unlikely to get bail.

"It can be confrontational and a number of lawyers have been assaulted, some of them very seriously over the years. You can go into the cells and someone has done a dirty protest, and they’re covered in you-know-what, and you’re sitting there for possibly no pay at all.

"For all these years we have been trying to make things work for people who can't afford a lawyer and provide a really good service, and we do. But it is completely undervalued and unless we reach a point where it is properly valued again people simply won’t do it."

Former criminal solicitor John McElroy, who became an advocate in 2013, said the profession he entered in 1989 has changed drastically in the past three decades.

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The jobs done by younger solicitors in the past, who had worked their way through the courts system to learn their trade, is now being done by older lawyers due to the lack of new talent coming through.

He said: "The big thing for everyone coming in to the trade was to do jury trials. When you got to that stage, you’d made it, you’d arrived. Now most of the people doing the work are men and women in their 40s to 60s. A colleague I spoke to this week said they feel like they are the last of the Mohicans – a bunch of disillusioned, tired, middle-aged people who aren’t being paid a rate which makes them feel valued.

"The general impression is they are not making the same they were a decade ago. A great number of them are saying to me they’re not going to do legal aid any more, and if someone wants defended, they will have to pay privately.

"That’s not been the way before. If someone was charged with anything in Scotland, who is eligible for legal aid, they would have had no difficulty finding someone to do their case in the past"

The Scottish Legal Aid board said: "While the number of criminal legal aid solicitors has gone down we have no evidence this has had any impact on the availability of criminal legal assistance across the country.

“In fact a significant number of firms registered for criminal legal assistance do little or no legal aid work. The impact of these firms dropping off the register would be minimal.

“Overall, the reduction in active firms is significantly smaller than the reduction in case numbers and associated criminal legal assistance expenditure and this has inevitably had an impact on the profitability of some firms.

“Along with others such as the Law Society of Scotland we are working to help the Scottish Government in its design of a legal aid payment structure that can assist the profession in responding to the challenges it faces.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Following the recommendation of the Independent Strategic Review of Legal Aid we established an expert panel to advise on a process to review fee structures and fee levels.

“While Ministers respected the review’s conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to support an immediate increase in legal aid fees, the Government delivered a 3% across the board uplift to legal aid fees paid to solicitors and advocates in light of the current financial landscape and in recognition of their key role delivering access to justice in Scotland.”