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Lawyers boycott courts in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Paisley over legal aid reform

Lawyers protest outside the Scottish Parliament . Picture: Julie Bull

Lawyers protest outside the Scottish Parliament . Picture: Julie Bull

  • by GARETH ROSE
 

LAWYERS have boycotted custody courts in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Paisley, in their latest protest against Scottish Government legal aid cuts.

Almost 240 people who had been arrested and appeared from cells, were given the choice of waiting for the duty lawyer or representing themselves.

The Scottish Government said it was “deeply concerned” that many were appearing without counsel.

However, lawyers warn plans to make anyone with £68 a week disposable income, or more than £750 in savings, make a contribution to legal costs could lead to many defending themselves in trials to save money.

Last week, faculties and bar associations from across Scotland voted in favour of industrial action, paving the way for a first nationwide strike of lawyers.

It is expected that further protest actions will include an increasing proportion of faculties.

Cameron Tait, president of the Edinburgh Bar Association, said: “The profession struggles to understand why the government is intent on driving through badly thought-out changes in the face of concerns not just from solicitors but academics and charities.”

He was particularly critical of Kenny MacAskill.

“Last week, the Justice Secretary gave the media the impression the government was involved in meaningful talks to resolve the situation, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. His approach means his relationship with the profession could be damaged irreparably,” Mr Tait said.

Lawyers want the Scottish Legal Aid Board (Slab) to be responsible for collecting contributions from accused persons.

They warn passing responsibility to firms will result in a cut for lawyers and damage their relationship with clients.

However, they also believe the disposable income level at which people start having to pay contributions is too low.

Mr MacAskill is willing to look at raising the £68 threshold, but has not said by how much.

Terry Gallanagh, dean of the Paisley Faculty, said in a statement: “This is in effect a tax on those on the lowest incomes and those with the most troubled of lives.

“The SNP propose to introduce a tax on those eligible for legal aid by forcing them to pay a contribution directly to their solicitor.”

He added: “It is more unpalatable than Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax as it is deliberately directed at those least able to pay and who have no - or the most easily ignored - voice in society.”

“This will lead to more miscarriages of justice as they are overwhelmed by the weight of a state prosecution,” Mr Gallanagh said.

“It seems patently unfair that a person who faces prosecution by the state will then be forced by the state to pay the state for their defence representation, but have no means to recover it if acquitted.”

The Law Society of Scotland, which has been negotiating with the Scottish Government over the proposed changes, said it sympathised with those taking industrial action.

Austin Lafferty, president, said: “It is a sign of the concern and frustration within the profession that solicitors have felt forced to make this kind of protest.

“Many now see this latest package of proposals as simply a step too far and a risk to the legal aid system that Scotland needs in order to be a civilised, fair and just society.”

“The Scottish Government was given no prior notice of today’s strike,” a spokesman said.

“We are deeply concerned that clients are choosing to appear unrepresented in court while their solicitor is on strike, even though the services of a duty solicitor provided by the Scottish Legal Aid Board are available to them, as this choice is unlikely to be in their best interests.”

A Scottish Court Service spokesman said: “In Edinburgh there were 52 new custody cases, Glasgow there were 155 new custody cases and at Paisley there were 31 new custody cases today which is the usual numbers of new custody cases after a public holiday weekend.

“Those have who have requested to meet with a solicitor have had the opportunity to do so. Some after having taken legal advice who have declined to meet with a solicitor, and have appeared unrepresented in court to ask for their case to be continued.”

 

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