THE alarm bells have been ringing in Scotland’s legal aid service for years now, but it looks like we may finally have reached breaking point. Solicitors have begun pulling out of the police station duty rota, which provides legal advice to suspects, and hundreds more are likely to follow suit. This crisis has been coming for ages, but now we are beginning to see the potentially grave consequences for the legal aid system and the people who rely on it for legal representation.

The warnings from lawyers about the growing crisis could not have been clearer. For several years, the Law Society of Scotland has been saying that the budgets for legal aid in Scotland are inadequate and unrealistic and could end up restricting access to the justice system for people on low or modest incomes. The Faculty of Advocates has also said that, unless the system is properly funded, people accused of the most serious crimes will struggle to find good legal representation, or any representation at all.

Now it would appear that the warnings are coming true. The Edinburgh Bar Association, whose members account for around 100 of the 845 solicitors that make up the police station duty scheme, have already voted unanimously to resign from it and the Glasgow Bar Association, which provides another 200, is due to vote on the matter this month. Solicitors in other parts of the country are also considering their positions and are expected to withdraw. With so many leaving the system, it could mean the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) having to cover with its own lawyers or take on extra staff to cope, with an unknown increased cost for taxpayers.

The tipping point for the solicitors has been the introduction of new rules – due to come into force at the end of the month – which will give everyone being questioned in a police station the right to legal advice, regardless of the severity of the offence or whether they have been charged. This is a sound measure that strengthens and upholds the principles of fairness and equality that should be at the centre of our legal system. Everyone should, at all points in the system, have access to legal representation; both sides should also, as far as possible, have comparable representation. A strong prosecution and a weak or non-existent defence is a violation of the most basic principles of justice.

The problem is that the new rules, while sound in principle, are going to lead to significantly increased workloads for the lawyers in the duty scheme – workloads which many lawyers have judged unsustainable.

No one is saying the rules are wrong – in fact, they are an excellent development – but the Edinburgh Bar Association is quite rightly asking whether its members should be working in court all day and then have to be on call through the night. The association’s president Leanne McQuillan says she is worried that, come January 25th when the new rules come into force, there will be chaos.

The hope now is that the Scottish Government will address the issue of workload in their current review of legal aid. It may also be able to suggest improvements that can make the system more efficient or cost effective and address some lawyers’ concerns that the current process is excessively bureaucratic.

However, in the end it will always come back to the same issue: funding. There will be more money for SLAB – last year they spent £500,000 on external police duty solicitors and that will rise to £3.2million when the new arrangements come into force later this month, but the legal aid service as a whole remains underfunded. The principles of equality and fairness which the new rules seek to uphold are important ones, but the question is whether we are prepared to pay what it takes to ensure that they are enforced.