JUSTICE secretary Kenny MacAskill has offered a last-minute concession over changes to legal aid in a bid to prevent Scotland’s first national lawyers strike.
Mr MacAskill has agreed to raise the £68 a week disposable income threshold, after which an accused would be expected to make a contribution to legal costs. He has also agreed that the Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab) – rather than lawyers – would collect those contributions.
However, this would come at a cost to firms, something The Scotsman understands the Law Society of Scotland opposes.
The offer was made during a meeting between Mr MacAskill and the society yesterday evening. Faculties, including the Edinburgh and Glasgow bar associations, were already separately planning to meet today, to discuss the ongoing dispute.
One option set to be tabled is a nationwide strike, something lawyers have not done in Scotland, and which would cause huge disruption to justice of the peace and sheriff courts around the country.
The Edinburgh Bar Association boycotted custody cases at Edinburgh Sheriff Court on Monday.
Mr MacAskill has made concessions on both of the lawyers’ key issues with the Scottish Government’s proposed changes to legal aid. However, he has not said what the new threshold would be, or how much law firms would be charged by Slab for collecting contributions. Last night, it appeared the two sides remained some distance apart. A Law Society of Scotland spokesman said: “Firstly, we appreciate that the Cabinet secretary took time to meet with us. However, it is clear there are still some fundamental areas of disagreement between the Scottish Government and the society.
“We are now going to organise a meeting with faculties and bar associations to discuss our next steps.”
Mr MacAskill has urged lawyers not to strike, saying it would be “premature”.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Mr MacAskill reiterated that he thought talk of strike action was premature and he hoped constructive dialogue could continue as strike action is in nobody’s interests.
“Expenditure on legal aid in 2011-12 was £157.3 million which was, despite savings, the second highest on record.
“The current legal aid scheme simply cannot be maintained without making savings and our proposals will deliver up to £3.9m of savings.”
People already have to make contributions to legal costs in civil cases, and the government believes it is fair those who can pay, do so, in criminal cases too.
However, lawyers have raised concerns that some accused will represent themselves to save money, and the proposals could reduce their access to justice.
There are also, currently, no suggestions that those who are acquitted will receive a refund, as happens in England.
The Scottish Government spokesman added: “At the meeting, Mr MacAskill offered to introduce an amendment to increase the threshold for people who would be required to pay a financial contribution towards criminal legal aid.
“In addition to removing the requirement to collect contributions in police station interviews, he also offered to explore instructing the Scottish Legal Aid Board to take responsibility for collecting fees on behalf of lawyers on a commercial basis, with a suitable fee then being charged for the service.”