Summing up:Scots lawyers wrong on legal aid debate

Scottish Legal Aid: Picture: JP

Scottish Legal Aid: Picture: JP

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WHEN the UK government proposed cuts to legal aid in England and Wales the protests were led by barristers and solicitors.

Around 2,000 of them staged a walk-out in March in the second round of action against cuts that they argued would create a two-tier system – one for those with money, one for those without.

Now it’s the turn of lawyers in Scotland to become vocal about legal aid. But there’s a big difference – up here they’re the ones lobbying FOR restrictions on legal aid.

In a discussion paper on publicly funded legal services, the Law Society of Scotland calls for “root and branch change” to the legal aid system, including withdrawing or restricting assistance across a broad range of cases.

In England and Wales, the effect of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which came into force last year, is that legal aid is no longer available in the majority of cases involving issues such as divorce, welfare benefits and child contact, while it has been removed entirely from many immigration, housing and benefit cases.

The National Audit Office last week accused Westminster of failing to “think through” the cuts and said it “does not know” whether people who need the support are getting it. The number of family court cases about child contact where neither parent had a lawyer rose by 89 per cent in 2013/14, it revealed, while representation in family cases fell by 30 per cent.

The Law Society of Scotland’s argument is predicated on the need for savings. But the NAO report on the reforms south of the Border concluded that without understanding the implications of the cuts the government “cannot be said to have delivered better overall value for money for the taxpayer”.

Those who lose out when legal aid is withdrawn are invariably vulnerable people who need the support most. Hardest hit will be those suffering the effects of Westminster’s government’s punitive and ideologically-driven austerity regime.

The Law Society of Scotland’s paper was published after the Scottish Legal Aid Board said savings would need to be made to the legal aid bill, even after efficiency savings of some £20 million in 2013/14. Spending on civil legal assistance fell by £1.2m to £47.8m over that period.

The board also underlined that changes to legal aid “should not jeopardise access to justice for those who need it”.

The Law Society’s proposals, however, appear to do just that. Buried on page 39 of its paper is a list of areas it wants removed from the scope of civil legal assistance, including breach of contract, debt, employment law, financial-only divorce, housing and most personal injury cases.

The timing is bad enough already, given benefit cuts, low wage inflation, the proliferation of zero-hour contracts and rising household costs. Should interest rates rise next year, the number of people needing help in repossession cases could rise sharply.

The Scottish Association of Law Centres rightly argues that the Law Society’s suggestions would “severely restrict access to justice for those who most need it in Scotland”.

And as the NAO report on the reforms south of the Border makes quite clear, the price paid for cutting legal aid is not one that we can afford to pay.

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