EDINBURGH’S defence solicitors are holding a one-day strike today at Edinburgh Sheriff Court following protests over changes to legal aid payments.
• Move expected to have major effect on Edinburgh Sheriff Court
• Explanatory letters to be given to accused turning up to court today
Defence solicitors argue that the changes contained in the new bill will prove disastrous for those accused of crime, and for the legal profession.
Contributions for those appearing in court will be demanded from anyone with disposable income of £68 a week, or savings of £750, and they could be liable for the entire cost of their defence, almost £500, in a summary case.
If acquitted, defendants will not receive a refund, contrary to the practice in England, where the Legal Aid Board also collects all contributions. In Scotland, solicitors will have to collect money from their clients.
Lawyers argue that the system will encourage people to try to represent themselves, and to enter guilty pleas, as both could work out cheaper than going to trial with representation.
One of the major areas of concern for the profession is the insistence of the Government and the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) that solicitors collect the contributions, forcing them to incur further costs while absorbing further cuts in fees.
Concern has also been raised that many accused will fail, or be unable, to pay.
Vice-president Mark Harrower said: “Independent solicitors will be expected to chase accused for these contributions at the same time as representing them in court and giving advice. We believe this will cause conflict between us and our clients, delays in court because of adjourned cases and unrepresented accused, resulting in increased costs to the system.”
“Worse still we believe that it could lead to an increase in miscarriages of justice. The system proposed by the Board will mean that it will be cheaper to plead guilty than to plead not guilty. Whilst the case fee will be the same, the contribution of the accused will be higher if he or she pleads not guilty. Is this the Government’s vision for an independent Scotland?”