LAWYERS have voted in favour of strike action after launching a furious attack on proposed Scottish Government changes to Legal Aid.
The Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA) voted unanimously in favour of industrial action, angry at plans that include making low-income suspects pay contributions to legal bills. Action is expected before the end of the year.
The Glasgow Bar Association also plans to meet and vote tomorrow, with other faculties around the country considering similar action.
That could cause huge disruption to courts around the country, with many if not all cases potentially unable to go ahead.
The EBA plans to protest outside the Scottish Parliament on 13 November, and will announce strike plans immediately afterwards if the government does not amend its Criminal Legal Assistance Bill.
Lawyers have raised concerns about the proposals before the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee, but have been told in private meetings the Scottish Government does not intend to budge. Cameron Tait, president of the EBA, said lawyers believe talks have amounted to nothing more than a “box ticking exercise”.
They are angry about both the principle of people on low incomes having to contribute to the cost of defending themselves against the state, and the Scottish Government’s insistence that the lawyers themselves should collect the money, rather than the Scottish Legal Aid Board.
Under the proposals, people with £68-a-week or more disposable income would be expected to pay towards legal costs.
Mr Tait said: “These changes will see people surviving on the breadline being required to pay the entire cost of their criminal case.
“Is it the SNP’s vision of an independent Scotland to see those on minimum wage and the most vulnerable in our society having to pay to defend themselves against the state?
“No-one takes industrial action lightly, particularly in a recession, but we have been left with little option as our concerns have not been addressed, despite cross-party support from Holyrood’s justice committee. These changes could be disastrous for access to justice in Scotland, and for our profession.”
Asked about the relationship between lawyers and the Scottish Government, he added: “It leaves it in a poor state.”
The bill is aimed at saving £3.9 million from the legal aid budget, which hit a record £161.4m in 2010-11.
Lawyers have even offered to make a contribution through the profession to ensure a saving for the taxpayer.
Oliver Adair, of the Law Society Scotland, who has been part of the negotiating team, said: “So the issue of transferring collection from the solicitor to the [Scottish Legal Aid] board was not to be a burden on the taxpayer, we said that could be funded through the profession. But that was summarily dismissed.”
He added: “Clients perceive solicitors as the one person in the system who is on their side, where everyone else is against them.
“If you introduce this contributions element, that could be potentially damaging.”
There have been concerns raised that the new bill may lead to delays where the accused refuses, or is unable to pay, and that some people may end up defending themselves.
Justice committee convener Christine Grahame also questioned whether a person acquitted, particularly where a judge, sheriff or JP said the case should never have been brought by the Crown, should not at least be reimbursed.