LAWYERS have been advised to drop clients who do not pay contributions to criminal costs in advance when controversial legal aid changes come into effect next year.
The guidance, from the Law Society of Scotland, has raised the prospect of accused people being left to represent themselves in court, with out-of-pocket lawyers poised to walk away when not-guilty pleas are lodged.
The Opposition at Holyrood fears Scotland’s court system is poised to “fall into chaos”.
The Scottish Government wants some people to make a contribution to defence costs in criminal cases in order to bring down the legal aid bill, but there are fears many will refuse to pay.
The move has been opposed by lawyers, who will also be tasked for the first time with collecting the contributions in “summary” cases in sheriff courts, where the bulk of Scotland’s criminal cases are heard. There were 77,000 summary cases in Scotland last year, 7,000 of which went to trial.
Collection will be carried out by the Scottish Legal Aid Board in more serious High Court cases under the proposed changes.
Lawyers took industrial action earlier in the year in a bid to change the government’s plans, but without success.
The Scottish Government has set a contribution threshold of £82 or more of disposable income a week.
In new guidance to lawyers, the Law Society of Scotland said: “It was recognised that there were numerous situations that might lead to an assessed contribution either having been paid partially or not at all. It was considered impractical to attempt to list and grade all eventualities.
“However, it was agreed to make the following addition to guidance, ‘If a plea of not guilty is tendered and the solicitor has not been paid the contribution in full by the intermediate diet, he or she should withdraw from acting, or if a decision is taken to continue to represent the client, should do so on a pro bono basis and not access any publicly funded assistance.’”
Mark Harrower, president of the Edinburgh Bar Association, said: “The Scottish Government was warned that if they were going to introduce contributions, where it was accepted that a sizeable proportion would not pay, and the profession would take that loss, that we would have to do something to protect our businesses.”
Martin Hughes, president of the Glasgow Bar Association, said: “The GBA had a public meeting on 5 December when a vote was taken and the overwhelming majority of those present supported the amendments.
“They are clearly designed to uphold the highest standards of professional integrity in the profession.
“The public should expect no less from solicitors, especially when funding is from the public purse and these amendments maintain those standards.”
Many lawyers, who do not have any powers of collection, fear that the new system will result in further cuts as they try to get money from people who often do not pay fines.
The changes are part of the Scottish Civil Justice and Criminal Legal Assistance Act and were initially aimed at saving £3.9 million from the legal aid budget, which hit a record £161.4m in 2010-11.
Labour justice spokesman Graeme Pearson said the SNP was warned about this scenario when it pushed through the changes in legal aid.
“These proposals risk our courts falling into chaos, with cases delayed, accused persons having to defend themselves and justice being denied to victims of crime,” he said.
“[Justice secretary] Kenny MacAskill pushed this controversial change through,” he added.
“Kenny MacAskill rode roughshod over every concern raised. It will be entirely his responsibility if our courts become clogged as a result of lawyers, understandably, walking away from clients unwilling or unable to pay.”
About 150,000 cases a year in Scotland currently qualify for legal aid.
Sheriff courts deal with embezzlements topping £20,000, social security fraud cases topping £40,000 and assaults to severe injury, after changes to the summary justice system.
High Court deals with the most serious crimes such as murder and rape.
The Scottish Government said it is holding talks with lawyers over the guidance.
A spokesman said: “We are aware of these proposed changes and are currently in discussions with the Law Society of Scotland.”
A firm line
A CRACKDOWN on criminal behaviour on public transport over the Christmas period has been announced by Scotland’s most senior prosecutor.
Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland QC is promising prosecutors will “take a firm line” with those who carry out attacks on buses, trains and other forms of public transport.
The pilot scheme will mean there will be a presumption that anyone who becomes involved in criminal behaviour on public transport, which puts people at risk of violent or threatening behaviour, will be prosecuted.
The initiative will run until January 6.