By Victoria Weldon

Solicitors have warned the Scottish Government that it risks losing the goodwill of the profession during a crucial time for the country’s courts after ministers rejected a plea for an increase in legal aid.

Lawyers say they are “extremely disappointed” with the response to The Law Society Of Scotland’s proposals for a general 50% increase in legal aid fees and a grants system for firms left struggling due to the coronavirus crisis and the shutdown of the courts.

The Scottish Government has instead agreed to enhance fees for solicitors dealing with early guilty pleas in jury cases, and to part-fund 40 traineeship places in a bid to help the profession.

However, Ian Moir, co-convener of the Law Society’s Legal Aid Committee, said the government’s response fails to address the “economic shock” felt by solicitors this year.

“Whilst I welcome these moves to a limited degree, it’s not the package of measures that we’ve urgently been asking for,” he said.

“It is extremely disappointing. It doesn’t address the economic shock that the profession has felt through lockdown, and it doesn’t support us through the additional work that we have to do to try and keep cases moving through court at the moment.

“I fear that the very high level of goodwill that the profession has shown to keep the courts moving through the lockdown, and as we come out of the other side of it, will not last if the government don’t do something to help the profession.”

Mr Moir said that no figure has been revealed for the enhanced fee for early guilty pleas, known as section 76 cases, and that - in any case - this was something that was agreed with the profession several years ago.

The solicitor, a partner at Moir & Sweeney Litigation, added: “I’m extremely disappointed that they haven’t increased the fixed fee to take account of the additional work that we’re doing, and that they’ve refused to look at a system of grants.”

He added that the committee will now go back to the Scottish Government to ask them to reconsider.

It is understood that payments from the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) so far this year are several millions of pounds down on 2019 and lawyers believe some of this money could be used to help firms.

The drop in payments is due to courts closing during lockdown when solicitors acted in a “bare minimum” of cases.

SLAB - who confirmed a 27% drop in criminal legal aid payments so far this year- introduced an interim payment scheme which allowed solicitors to claim for fees earlier than usual in a bid to help with the downturn.

However, it was claimed that this simply left firms with the choice of taking the fee during lockdown, or working without that income later on.

So far, two-thirds of criminal law firms have yet to use the scheme.

Meanwhile, the court system is still running at a reduced level, with sheriff and jury trials not due to restart in some locations until February next year.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government will provide 50% funding for up to 40 trainees for two years. This is entirely directed at addressing concerns about young solicitors entering the legal services market and is funded from the Justice budget. These trainees will quickly be able to attract fees for their work and are therefore capable of making a financial contribution to the firms that they are placed with.

“We also intend to progress with a fee reform package that is financially beneficial for solicitors and intend to discuss this with the Society in the near future.

“Almost all areas of law have seen an increase in legal aid business compared to this time last year.”