THE justice system has been plunged into crisis after all of Edinburgh’s criminal defence lawyers announced they would refuse duty calls to police stations for three months.
Police fear the industrial action could force them to release suspects without even questioning them for fear of breaching human rights laws.
The Edinburgh Bar Association is the first Scottish faculty to announce the move, but it predicts others will follow suit, with Glasgow actively considering similar action.
It potentially leaves the Public Defence Solicitors Office (PDSO), in Edinburgh, which has 21 solicitors, trying to cover the work of 30 legal firms.
Since the Supreme Court’s Cadder verdict, police have been unable to question suspects without first giving them access to a solicitor.
Lawyers are angry about Scottish Government proposals that would see people with disposable income of £68 or more make contributions to defence costs.
They also oppose plans to make law firms responsible for collecting these contributions.
Chief Superintendent David O’Connor, president of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, said: “Clearly, the issue of getting access to solicitors can be problematic even under current circumstances, so any reduction of access would potentially impact on the accused’s right to receive legal advice.”
He added: “If there’s going to be delays in contacting lawyers, the reality is some people may be retained in custody longer than necessary.”
In the year leading to June, 1,301 suspects were seen by the duty solicitor, 692 by a named lawyer who the suspect has asked for specifically, and just 368 by the PDSO.
Where solicitors are requested by name they will continue to attend.
In a letter to the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB), Cameron Tait, president of the Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA) , wrote: “This association is of the view that SLAB and the Scottish Government are making little secret of the lack of value they attach to the service which is provided to the public, and to the criminal justice system as a whole, by the independent criminal bar in Scotland.
“We believe that is indicative of a combative approach towards the independent profession which threatens the existence of small independent firms and the future of the independent criminal bar.”
He added: “The Justice Secretary’s assertions that he is attempting to enter into meaningful discussion with the profession is simply not true.”
Other faculties are expected to vote on taking similar action in the coming days.
A spokeswoman for the Glasgow Bar Association said: “We are aware of Edinburgh’s position and a similar action is under active consideration.”
The solicitors have been backed by the Law Society of Scotland, but condemned by the Scottish Government, which accused them of putting their own interests before the public need.
A Scottish Government spokesman added: “This action by the Edinburgh Bar Association which seeks to put the criminal justice system at risk, for the convenience of solicitors, is extremely disappointing and attacking the police station duty scheme in this way is totally unjustified.
“Contingency arrangements will be put in place to minimise the impact of any action and the Justice Secretary will instruct the Scottish Legal Aid Board to take any and all action that is necessary to ensure the right of those being questioned in police stations to access legal advice is upheld - both in the short term, and for the future. “
Iain Robertson, Chairman of the Scottish Legal Aid Board, said the move by the EBA was damaging to the law profession in Scotland.
“The pressures on public funding including legal aid are very challenging for all. It is very disappointing that the EBA has chosen to act in this way, which appears to risk damage to the justice system and their clients.
“In complete contradiction of what Mr Tait says, SLAB does value the work legal aid solicitors do, including those doing criminal work. It has always been SLAB’s position that legal aid is best provided by a mixture of private practice and employed solicitors with the large majority being provided by private practice.”