Accused ‘may have to choose jail if they can’t afford new legal aid fees’
SCOTS may be ready to go to jail rather than pay massive hikes in the cost of hiring a lawyer under controversial changes to the justice system, the country’s top legal figures have warned.
Courts are facing major delays and backlogs as thousands of cases are hit by the overhaul, which will see lawyers forced to collect fees from accused people themselves before trials get under way.
MSPs on Holyrood’s justice committee were warned yesterday that many accused people will instead try to represent themselves, which could undermine their right to a fair trial and breach human rights laws.
The Scottish Civil Justice and Criminal Legal Assistance Bill is aimed at saving £3.9 million from the legal aid budget, which hit a record £161.4m in 2010-11.
Ian Moir, of the Law Society of Scotland, said people on the minimum wage could have to pay more than £800 on the basis of the changes.
“I don’t think anyone would view that as people who can afford to pay making a contribution towards legal aid,” he said.
“That’s a very, very real problem, because it’s likely to lead to people saying, I can’t afford the contribution I’m being asked to pay, so I’m just going to plead guilty without a lawyer.
“And they find themselves in prison, not having realised that was going to be the consequence of it, disqualified from driving, all sorts of things that they may not have understood as a consequence of thinking, I can’t afford this contribution so I’ll do it myself.”
He added: “On a basic principle, a scheme which might incentivise people to plead guilty because the level of contribution has been set wrong simply doesn’t provide justice at all, doesn’t meet the requirement potentially of the European Convention on Human Rights.”
About 150,000 cases a year in Scotland currently qualify for legal aid. The changes will mean thousands more accused people must contribute to their defence costs, with anyone earning as little as £68 a week now forced to pay a chunk of their costs.
Committee vice-convener Jenny Marra (Labour) called the figure a “medieval level of income”.
Mark Harrower, representing both the Edinburgh and Glasgow Bar Associations, told MSPs that lawyers being forced to collect fees themselves in sheriff court cases could lead to delays and “fall-outs” with clients over non-payment.
Collection is currently carried out by the Scottish Legal Aid Board and will remain so in High Court cases, under the proposed changes.
He warned that lawyers might end up telling sheriffs they were “not ready” to defend cases at pre-trial hearings if clients had not paid their newly increased share of legal costs.
Asked if this would interfere with justice, Mr Harrower warned: “I think it will.”
Scotland’s High Court deals with the most serious crimes such as murder and rape. But sheriff courts now deal with embezzlements topping £20,000, social security fraud cases topping £40,000 and assaults to severe injury, after recent changes to summary justice system.
“Summary cases have never been more serious than they are now,” Mr Harrower added.
James Wolffe, of the Faculty of Advocates, warned that the proposals were likely to lead to more Scots representing themselves. This would have a “significant impact on justice and may result in unfairness” for many in the dock.
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