LAWYERS have accused justice secretary Kenny MacAskill of making “misleading” statements in the row over changes to legal aid.
Faculties and bar associations are preparing to take industrial action in protest against the Scottish Government’s plans.
Now they have been further incensed by differences between what the government said publicly after a meeting between Mr MacAskill and the Law Society of Scotland, and what was said during those talks and written in a letter by the justice secretary afterwards.
They believe the government has attempted to spin its position to gain public support.
The row centres on the Criminal Legal Assistance Bill and, in particular, the proposal that people with £68 a week or more in disposable income should make a contribution to defence costs, and that law firms should be responsible for collecting fees.
After Tuesday’s meeting, the government said in a statement: “In addition to removing the requirement to collect contributions in police interviews, he [Mr MacAskill] also offered to explore instructing the Scottish Legal Aid Board to take responsibility for collecting fees on behalf of lawyers on a commercial basis.”
This was almost exactly the same as Mr MacAskill’s letter to the Law Society of Scotland, but with one crucial word omitted – unpaid.
To the society, he wrote: “In addition to removing the requirement to collect contributions in police station interviews, I also offered to explore instructing the Scottish Legal Aid Board to provide a service for those solicitors who wish it to try to collect unpaid fees on a commercial basis.”
Lawyers say that means they would be made to pursue unco-operative clients for contributions, damaging their relationship with them, and only after that would they be able to pass the burden on to the legal aid board.
Omitting the word unpaid, they argue, suggested wholesale responsibility for collecting fees might be shifted to the board.
Mark Harrower, of the Edinburgh Bar Association, said the differing statements meant the relationship between lawyers and the government had deteriorated, and had damaged hopes of reaching a compromise.