Scotland’s courts experienced widespread delays on Monday as defence lawyers took action in a dispute over support for legal aid firms struggling due to the pandemic.

Solicitors said to be “at breaking point” boycotted courts across the country in a move designed to delay the processing of custody cases – the stage where an accused makes their first appearance after being arrested.

The action came as it was revealed that a Scottish Government fund set up to help law firms in the wake of a downturn in court work has paid out just £2.3 million of its allocated £9m.

A £1m traineeship fund is also yet to be implemented despite being announced months ago.

The Scottish Government said it was working to explore other options to ensure the resilience fund is fully distributed.

However, Julia McPartlin, president of the newly set up Scottish Solicitors Bar Association (SSBA), argued that it should not take months for an emergency fund to be issued.

The SSBA said in a statement: “Our firms urgently need support to continue practising whilst the pandemic is ongoing.

“The Scottish Government recognised this reality by assigning £9 million to a resilience fund for practitioners but there has been a complete failure to properly distribute that fund to firms who desperately need it.”

It added: “The profession is at breaking point. Firms must be supported now to ensure we maintain a healthy and vibrant legal aid profession. This is fundamental to access to justice.

“The most vulnerable in society and, indeed, justice itself will continue to suffer if the legal aid profession is not supported. We call on the Scottish Government to take urgent action to distribute the resilience fund.”

Figures obtained under freedom of information laws suggest that legal aid payouts for solicitors dropped from £95.6m in 2019/20 to £74.1m last year, largely due to the shutdown of the courts during the pandemic.

The Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) said it is expecting a jump in payouts this year as the justice system begins to recover, however lawyers claim some firms might not last much longer without financial support.

The resilience fund was welcomed by the profession when it was announced late last year, however this quickly turned to anger as many were refused an award. Of the 288 firms who applied for financial help, just 93 received a grant.

More than 20 legal bar associations decided to take action on Monday in protest, including at Glasgow and Edinburgh Sheriff Courts and other areas including Ayr, Kilmarnock and Aberdeen.

The courts affected saw a representative from their association deal with all custody cases, resulting in the delays.

At Glasgow Sheriff Court, the courts had to sit until 10.30pm despite lawyers saying they were surprised at the low number of custody cases - just 38 compared to 56 last Monday - especially given the scenes in the city centre following Rangers FC’s Scottish Premiership trophy presentation.

Fiona McKinnon, president of the Glasgow Bar Association, said: “We’re not as busy as we expected to be given the scenes over the weekend in Glasgow. I’m surprised that the numbers are as low.”

Police said they made 28 arrests in connection with the crowds on Saturday.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “As well as delivering the first stage of an uplift to legal aid fees of more than 10% over the next two years, the Scottish Government launched a resilience fund to support legal aid solicitors. We received 288 applications – representing fewer than half of the potentially eligible active firms - and have offered awards totalling circa £2.3 million. We are fully committed to providing support to the profession and are working as a matter of urgency to explore options for distributing all unallocated funds from the £9 million budget set aside for the resilience fund.”