SCOTLAND’S solicitors are set to take part in the country’s first national lawyers strike after MSPs backed a controversial move to make low income suspects pay towards their costs in criminal cases.
More than 100 solicitors attended a protest at Holyrood on Tuesday just days after Scotland’s two largest bar association voted for industrial action over the legal aid shake-up, which will also make lawyers responsible for collecting the money from clients.
Cameron Tait, president of the Edinburgh bar association, told The Scotsman that it was now a case of “when, where and what” industrial action Scotland’s solicitors would take ”as opposed to whether”.
Mr Tait said that lawyers had no other option than to take the action after the SNP dominated Holyrood’s justice committee
refused to amend its Criminal Legal Assistance Bill, which would mean anyone with an income of above £68 a week being forced to pay towards their legal costs.
He said that it would be decided within days whether the industrial action would involve a full walk out by solicitors or work to rule action such as restrictions on the amount of court and case work carried out be lawyers.
A statement issued by the Edinburgh Bar Association insisted that “strike action by Scotland’s defence solicitors has become unavoidable”.
Meanwhile, other bar associations across Scotland are expected to ballot their members on industrial action following Holyrood’s backing for the changes to the legal aid system.
Mr Tait said: “There are likely to be more bar associations involved other than just Edinburgh and Glasgow. Many associations have said they would be supportive.
“It’s more a case of when, where and what action as opposed to whether. It’s going to depend what form, what’s involved, who’s going to be involved and the date.
“There are so many different options about what we could do. There could be a certain type of action linked to courts and cases or it could be a complete walk out.”
“We might not want to let everyone know in advance for tactical reasons. We have the authority for action in principle.“
The threat of strike action came as SNP justice secretary Kenny MacAskill appeared before Holyrood’s justice committee, where he insisted that “savings had to be made” to the public purse.
Mr MacAskill, who refused to comment on the protest, said: “The Scottish Legal Aid Board is not a collection agency. If the Law Society has proposals I would be happy to take them on board. I’m prepared to consider out of the box suggestions.
“I do not consider it unreasonable for solicitors to collect fees. I’m firmly of the view that solicitors are much better placed to collect small amounts from clients. I’m happy to discuss the threshold and collection, but savings have to be made.”
But Tory MSP Margaret Mitchell, speaking at the justice committee meeting, attacked the plans to hand solicitors the responsibility for collecting legal aid contributions rather than the Scottish Legal Aid Board.
She said: “It’s preposterous that the government is proposing that private businesses should collect legal aid contributions. “There’s no doubt that requiring solicitors to collect legal aid contributions around the country is going to result in delays.
“It beggars belief that the SNP government is introducing this ill-judged proposal.”
Bernadette Baxter, president of the Glasgow bar association, speaking at the Holyrood protest, warned that it was “highly likely” that solicitors would go on strike unless changes were made to the bill.
She said: “Our members have voted on that proposition and if there is no change and the legislation goes ahead in its current form it’s highly likely that there will be industrial action.”
George Henry, a senior Edinburgh solicitor, warned that the legal charges would deter defendants from taking on lawyers and create the risk of miscarriages of justice.
Mr Henry said: “Many people at the bottom of the pile will find that they are not entitled to legal aid.
“Our worry is that people will be disinclined to instruct solicitors for fear of the costs they will incur.
“There’s a possibility of justice not being properly administered because of people being underrepresented, with more clients having to defend themselves and the risk of delays and inefficiencies.
“It’s wrong in principle to ask the poorest people in society to pay these charges as someone on £68 a week is likely to be in a position where they are struggling to buy food, never mind paying legal costs.
“It’s disappointing and worrying that a justice secretary who is a solicitor has decided to proceed with this with his misleading soundbites rather than engaging in reasoned debate.”