THE community safety minister insisted that Scotland's legal aid system was one of the best in Europe, as a lawyer group said an impasse on payments has meant the intire criminal justice system is in "imminent danger of collapse".

Ash Regan was quizzed about the state of Scotland's justice system after the Herald on Sunday revealed the concerns of the Scottish Solicitors' Bar Association, the nation's biggest criminal defence lawyer group .

The SSBA hit out at a failure of direct engagement with ministers after refusing certain domestic abuse cases in the midst of a legal aid payments dispute last month.

The representative body says there is no choice but to decline cases that are not financially viable, leading to real concerns about the rights to justice in Scotland.

A symptom of the unrest first surfaced last year when defence solicitors from the Glasgow, Aberdeen and Borders bar associations and Peterhead defence solicitors made a decision to boycott holiday custody courts.

The SSBA has said that legal faculties began a total withrawal from the duty solicitor scheme at the start of the year.

The indefinite and ongoing withrawal involves faculties in Aberdeen, Peterhead and Banff, Dundee, Forfar, Kirkcaldy, Dunfermline, Edinburgh, Livingston, Selkirk and Jedburgh.

From April, members of the Glasgow Bar Association (GBA) decided it would no longer accept court appointments in cases where accused persons are not allowed to represent themselves after 90 per cent of member firms voted in favour of action.

HeraldScotland:

The GBA, which represents and promotes the interests of approximately 400 solicitors in the west of Scotland, a large proportion of whom are criminal defence practitioners, said it was a result of the Scottish Government "dragging its heels" over any legal aid fees increase.

It is estimated that there was a 25% reduction in the number of solicitors engaged in legal aid work over the ten years prior to the pandemic. The SSBA says that pattern has been exacerbated in recent years.

It comes as public spending on all legal aid over nearly 20 years has dramatically slumped.

In 2007/08 it was at £155 million and in 2019/20 it stood at just £130.85m - a drop of £85m when taking inflation into account. In 2020/21 it dropped even further to £99.13m.

And there are fears things will get worse, as the Law Society of Scotland, the professional body for Scottish solicitors criticised the freezing of justice budgets until 2027, saying that the government’s commitment to the recovery of the courts post-pandemic requires investment which is not evident in the review.

Ms Ash spoke out as Scottish Labour MSP Foysol Choudhury asked how the Scottish Government would fair access to justice as a result of the legal aid issues.

He warned: " The weight of the court backlog from the Covid period is already harming access to justice, and this will only threaten any recovery. In recent months, people across the Lothian region have been caught up in mixture of court backlogs and industrial action from the legal profession in protest at frozen pay, delayed justice, strike action and people across Scotland stuck without access to legal representation, is this the reality of the Scottish Government's new vision for justice minister?"

Ms Regan said there had been an increase in the legal aid budget of 10% this year and it was investing a further £1m over two years in the future of the legal profession.

And she went on to quote from a four-year-old independent study that showed at Scotland had a "generous system of legal aid by international standards, that it had wide scope and no cash limit".

She went on: "And despite significant financial pressures, the legal aid system in Scotland is one of the leading jurisdictions in Europe and that's in terms of scope, eligibility and cost with 75% of people financially eligible to some form of civil legal aid assistance.

"And this is in contrast to England and Wales where it's just 25% because there there have been cuts to scope that have left many areas of civil law such as family, housing and immigration largely out of scope."

She added: "The member mentioned the backlog and of course the government has invested substantial amounts of funding into reducing the backlog.

HeraldScotland:

"The legal aid budget in Scotland is demand led and all of those who meet the eligibility criteria will have access to legal aid, and we will continue to work with justice organisations to develop and coordinate their delivery plans in response to the high level of spending review allocations, including public bodies such as the Scottish Legal Aid board.

"I will give the chamber my assurance that myself and the Cabinet Secretary will continue to engage with representatives of the profession to try to find a sustainable way forward.

The SSBA say that ministers have chosen to channel significant sums to support prosecuting lawyers, with some COPFS staff having seen pay rises of as much as 24% since March, 2021.

But while there have been incremental increases to the fixed fee paid in the bulk of criminal cases but, inflation is considered, the fee has dropped by almost half in real terms.

A single summary legal aid case with one deferred sentence attracted a fee of £550 in 1999 and just 76p more 23 years later. The SSBA says the average rate of pay for a newly qualified defence solicitor is £25,000 a year while, a publicly funded procurator fiscal depute at the same stage will be paid over £48,000. Publicly funded prosecutors also get a pension and flexible working.