JUSTICE Secretary Kenny MacAskill has said he is ready to negotiate with lawyers over proposed changes to Legal Aid.
The two largest bar associations in Scotland have voted for industrial action over the controversial shake-up and more than 100 solicitors protested outside Holyrood last week.
Under the proposals, low-income suspects in Scotland will be asked to pay towards their costs in criminal cases, with the money being collected by lawyers rather than the Scottish Legal Aid Board.
MacAskill has now said he is willing to look at the possibility of flexibility in collecting the fees and the threshold of disposable income.
Speaking to The Scotsman, he said: “There is scope for discussing ways in which the burden of collection might be eased and I hope the Law Society will now agree to discuss this with us.
“Earlier discussions informed the development of proposals and I have responded positively to points raised during witness sessions, such as removing the need to collect contributions in police stations and disregarding disability living allowance and war pensions as income.”
The Scottish Civil Justice Council and Criminal Legal Assistance Bill aims to save £3.9 million from the legal aid budget, which hit a record £161.4m in 2010-11. Under the proposals, people with £68-a-week or more disposable income would be expected to pay towards their legal costs.
However, both the Edinburgh and Glasgow Bar Associations have voted in favour of strike action in a move which could cause huge disruption.
MacAskill said moves to reduce the legal aid budget had been imposed on him by Westminster: “The Scottish Government is facing a difficult financial climate which continues to be challenging for us all.
“Indeed, we can be confident that future spending reviews by the Westminster Government will not make the current very tight financial settlement any easier.
“We are doing our best to mitigate the hardship for everyone, but my utmost priority must be to protect the integrity of the criminal and legal aid system.”
Mark Harrower, vice- president of the Edinburgh Bar Association, said: “I’m glad to hear he is willing to see sense because the changes which he intended to force on the profession would have had disastrous results both for the smooth running of the courts as well as for the ability of independent criminal defence firms to operate.”
But he added: “Until we have concrete assurances that’s going to change, we will be taking protest action.”
Oliver Adair, legal aid convener for the Law Society of Scotland, said: “The Cabinet secretary gave a commitment before the Justice Committee for further discussion and we intend to take up the opportunity. We will continue to put forward strong arguments on the issues involved.”