SCOTLAND is facing its first national lawyers’ strike in response to controversial legal aid proposals, in a move which could bring widespread disruption to the courts.
Bar associations and faculties have backed industrial action as tensions between the legal profession and the Scottish Government mount.
Lawyers have opposed Holyrood plans to make the accused pay a contribution to their defence costs, if the individual has more than £68 a week of disposable income. They are also angry that law firms would collect these fees, rather than the Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab), under the plans.
The call for action came the day after justice secretary Kenny MacAskill offered some concessions on the level at which payments would begin and on how the contributions were collected. The moves were not enough to persuade lawyers to reject industrial action. No prior warning will be given of the date or manner of the action, but it will be before Christmas unless ministers change course, lawyers said.
Strike action would cause huge disruption and cost by bringing sheriff and justice of the peace courts to a halt. Bar associations said the action would not affect High Courts.
Cameron Tait, president of Edinburgh Bar Association, said: “There will be
further industrial action and it’s going to involve numerous bar associations across Scotland.
“We are not going to advise when it is going to be, but it will be in the near future.”
It is not clear whether any faculties will refuse to take part, but so far none has come out in opposition. Edinburgh Bar Association was the first to vote in favour of the principle of striking and then boycotted custody courts on Monday.
Glasgow Bar Association also voted unanimously in support of industrial action, followed by lawyers in Aberdeen, Perth and Dumfries.
Hamilton Society of Solicitors held its own emergency meeting yesterday, in which it endorsed the action.
Mr MacAskill said he was open to raising the disposable income threshold, but not by how much, and to instructing Slab to collect fees. But that would come at a cost to law firms and then only when they had already tried and failed to extract payment.
Mr Tait said: “The government advised in Tuesday’s release that Kenny MacAskill is going to move an amendment to increase the eligibility level. Without an indication of what that will be it’s meaningless.
“If if goes up by £1 it is not going to make any difference to people seeking access to justice. It’s of no worth.”
He added: “It’s not about contributions. It’s funding for people in Scotland who are on the poverty line.”
Lawyers fear that if the changes are introduced, some suspects will choose to represent themselves in court, in order to save money. They also believe making lawyers collect from those who do pay will damage the relationship with clients. In many cases, they expect clients will delay or refuse to pay, meaning the changes will amount to a pay cut for the profession.
Mr Tait said Mr MacAskill’s meeting with the Law Society of Scotland on Tuesday had failed to give lawyers hope that a deal may be reached.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “From the outset of drawing up proposals for the Bill, we have regularly met with the Law Society of Scotland.
“The Cabinet Secretary for Justice met most recently with the Law Society yesterday, as well as writing to them today, with a view to continuing this constructive dialogue.
“Any decision by solicitors to take industrial action is therefore very disappointing. It will inconvenience courts, accused persons, victims and witnesses in a move that is wholly premature while discussions are still ongoing.”